What is an asteroid?
Asteroids consist of leftover material from early in the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Many remain in their original state, while others comprise debris from the destruction of partially formed planets that collided during the solar system’s infancy.
Asteroids are among the most accessible celestial bodies. Successful government space missions to bodies including 433 Eros, 25143 Itokawa and 4 Vesta have provided some 50,000 meteorite samples that have greatly added to our understanding of the universe.
How big is an asteroid?
Asteroids are small, rocky objects with low gravity that are too small to be called planets. If all the known asteroids were collected together, their mass would be just a fraction of that of Earth’s moon.
They revolve around the Sun in orbits similar to those followed by the larger planets in our solar system. Those closest to Earth are called near-earth objects (NEO’s) or near-earth asteroids.
Are asteroids dangerous to life on earth?
Over billions of years, asteroids have regularly intersected Earth’s orbit. When an asteroid, or parts of it, land on Earth it is called a meteorite. NASA calculates that a large asteroid strikes our planet every 100,000 years. Even a smaller one could destroy a city or cause a devastating tsunami. Thankfully, these strikes are also rare, at one in every 1,000 to 10,000 years.
Where can we find asteroids?
Asteroids can be found throughout the solar system. Some pass close to the Sun; others are found beyond the reaches of the outermost planet, Neptune.
Jupiter’s gravity has also pulled many asteroids into the main asteroid belt that stretches all the way to Mars, containing more than 200 asteroids, each more than 100 kilometers in diameter.
Asteroids often stray from their orbits, but we already have the technology to monitor, access and even land on those that come close to Earth.
What is Asteroid mining?
The minerals, metals and gases found on asteroids and other near-earth objects can be mined to be either used directly in space, as a source of energy, or to be used in building rockets, satellites and other equipment beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Some may be brought back to Earth to support the economic needs of a growing population.
Why mine asteroids?
The space industry is currently held back by the high cost of launching equipment and supplies into orbit. Because of today’s launch costs of several million dollars per ton, the number of satellites that can be launched is limited. Even more limited is the range of business activity that is viable in light of that cost. Asteroid mining will provide raw materials from space, to be used in space. Large quantities of raw material at relatively low cost can make current satellites more capable and less expensive, helping the current satellite operators improve the services they are able to deliver to their customers on Earth.
Once a supply chain of materials is established in orbit, it will encourage new applications and new business models as entrepreneurs attempt to introduce even more services that people on Earth find useful. The possibilities are truly endless.
Asteroid mining could open up a wealth of new resources and opportunity to build economies beyond what we have on Earth today, and allow humans to become an interplanetary species.
What resources could be mined?
Near-earth asteroids contain volumes of every chemical element needed to support an affluent and fully recycling population of 500 billion people. The Main Belt contains 100,000 times more of these resources.
The list is long: Aluminum, cobalt, iron, manganese, nickel and titanium can be used in construction. Water and oxygen can be used to sustain space travelers. Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are useful rocket propellants.
Rare metals, used in everything from catalytic converters to smartphones, could be brought back to Earth. They include iridium, silver, osmium, palladium, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium and tungsten.
Why is water so vital in space?
Celestial bodies can contain substantial usable quantities of frozen water. Space explorers will need water to support themselves and plants they may grow in space vehicles or colonies in the future. Water can also be split into oxygen and hydrogen: the first to provide breathable air, the second as a source of fuel to propel exploratory missions deeper into space and to power living quarters and equipment.
Which asteroids could be mined?
Several asteroids have already been visited for scientific purposes. The Rosetta probe reached Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. NASA’s DAWN mission is visiting Vesta and Ceres in the Main Belt, while Japan’s Hayabusa has already returned with samples from asteroid 25143 Itokawa.
Private companies with plans to harvest resources are using NASA and their own data to study accessibility, composition, asteroid spin rates and orbital periods – the time it takes to circle the Sun.
Why Luxembourg aims to become the European hub in space resources?
Luxembourg is already home to a significant space industry that generates jobs and supports the broader economy. Having created legal, research and financial initiatives for the establishment of satellite, telecommunications and earth observation businesses in the Grand Duchy, Luxembourg aims to be at the forefront of the next stage of development.
Within the SpaceResources.lu initiative launched in February 2016, the country’s legal framework will support space enterprises as well as bolstering global security and stimulating emerging sectors such as robotics and artificial intelligence.
Which partners are involved?
The Luxembourg Government leads this project, primarily via the Ministry of the Economy. Private companies are involved too, including the US companies Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources as well as Tokyo-based ispace which have selected Luxembourg to establish their European headquarters.
Simultaneously to steps taken on the national level in the frame of the SpaceResources.lu initiative, Luxembourg continues to promote international cooperation in order to progress on a future governance scheme and a global regulatory framework for the exploration and use of resources gathered from celestial bodies. Hence, Luxembourg is collaborating with different countries and with the world’s space agencies, including the European Space Agency, France’s CNES, Germany’s DLR and JAXA in Japan.
What are the legal issues?
The Outer Space Treaty forbids any country from claiming sovereignty over space bodies. The Grand Duchy, for example, could not plant a flag on a planet or asteroid and declare it as Luxembourg’s.
But the treaty does not cover the resources contained in celestial bodies. Global law remains untested regarding who would own the rights to minerals, gases and water found there. Up to now, that has not been an issue since most missions have been for scientific purposes. But for space mining to be viable, future explorers and miners will need to be certain of their rights to extract, consume and commercialize the materials they discover.
Does Luxembourg offer financial support?
Luxembourg offers incentives for private sector companies seeking to develop space mining opportunities and start-ups investigating capital to support their growth. Luxembourg’s financial regulatory systems fully support venture capital and private equity investment within a wider European framework.