Luxembourg’s royal heir and its top economic official got the grand tour of the Seattle area today, deepening a business relationship that could someday turn far-flung asteroids into the next commercial frontier.
“The exciting field of space technology could enable many more partnerships and economic success stories between Luxembourg and Seattle,” Prince Guillaume told a VIP gathering at Seattle’s Space Needle.
Don’t underestimate the tiny country nestled between Belgium, Germany and France: Over the past few decades, Luxembourg has built itself into a financial powerhouse as well as a center for Europe’s satellite industry. Now Luxembourg’s government and investment companies are aiming to do it again, with asteroid mining.
The idea of harvesting valuable resources from asteroids may sound as way-out as the idea that Luxembourg could lead the way for building asteroids into an industry. But that’s why Prince Guillaume and his wife, Princess Stephanie, are making a swing through Seattle, San Francisco and Silicon Valley this week: to do a reality check on present and future investments.
Last year, the government and one of the country’s top banking institutions, the Société Nationale de Crédit et d’Investissement or SNCI, put €25 million ($26.5 million) into Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company based in Redmond, Wash.
Deputy Prime Minister Étienne Schneider, who is also Luxembourg’s economy minister, said the investment translates into a 10 percent share of the company. Luxembourg is also partnering with Deep Space Industries, an asteroid mining company headquartered in Silicon Valley.
Both partnerships were forged under the aegis of Luxembourg’s €200 million ($212 million) SpaceResources.lu initiative, which follows the same playbook used for the financial and satellite industries: Grab the “first-mover advantage” in an emerging marketplace.
“I know that we will not get any money for the next … I don’t know how many years,” Schneider said. “For us, it’s an investment into the development of this new activity, because we believe in the activity. We are sure that it’s not a question of if it will happen, but a question of when it will happen. And then we will be in the forefront.”
Planetary Resources was founded in 2012 to be in the forefront as well: Its near-term business model focuses on Earth observation satellites, but those satellites will help blaze a trail for more advanced spacecraft with the ability to seek out promising asteroids and extract water as well as other potentially valuable materials.
If the water from a medium-sized asteroid could be efficiently extracted and converted into rocket propellants, the potential payoff could be measured in billions of dollars, if not trillions, Platinum and other precious metals could add billions more to a space rock’s value. All this assumes, of course, that there’ll be a need for in-space refueling and manufacturing by the time Planetary Resources’ mining operation gets off the ground.
“We believe space mining is still a long way from commercial viability, but it has the potential to further ease access to space and facilitate an in-space manufacturing economy,” Goldman Sachs analyst Noah Poponak wrote in a note to investors last week. “Space mining could be more realistic than perceived.”
Planetary Resources is planning to have a prototype space telescope known as Arkyd 6 launched later this year on an Indian PSLV rocket, and the first asteroid-hunting Arkyd 200 spacecraft could head out into deep space as soon as 2020.
During today’s grand tour, the Luxembourg delegation – including Prince Guillaume and his wife, Princess Stephanie, as well as Schneider and about a dozen other officials, business executives and journalists – toured Planetary Resources’ headquarters in Redmond. The royal couple donned hairnets, booties and coveralls to check out two Arkyd 6 satellites that are undergoing preparations for launch in the company’s clean room.
The tour group also saw how Planetary Resources is using 3-D printing to fabricate spacecraft components, and using “flatsats” to test satellite electronics well in advance of launch.
While Planetary Resources is working on the space hardware, Luxembourg is working on the regulatory underpinnings for what it hopes will be a new business frontier. Schneider said Luxembourg’s government is considering the creation of a space agency to coordinate commercial space activity. Within a couple of months, lawmakers are expected to vote on a measure to create a framework for property rights in space.
“Our idea is based a little bit on the idea of the international [law of the] seas,” he said. “You cannot go into international seas and decide that that’s yours, but you can go and use the fish.”
The United States also has taken the first steps toward working out space property rights, but Schneider said he hopes Luxembourg can provide a more reliable business environment. “We don’t want it to be a ‘Wild West,'” he said.
Schneider also noted that U.S. laws would extend property rights only to ventures that had majority U.S. ownership. “We don’t have this limitation,” Schneider told GeekWire. “It was never in our nature to talk about the nationality of capital, because otherwise Luxembourg would still be strictly a farmers’ country.”
But Schneider doesn’t cast Luxembourg’s campaign to capitalize on space resources as a space race.
“We want this to be in the interest of all humankind, and not only a few countries,” he said. “But somebody has to get it launched. Somebody has to kick the asses of the governments in order to move.”