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 kilometres 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.
Where did the Moon come from?
There are many theories about the origins of the Moon, but one is more commonly accepted than others. This theory suggests that a Mars-sized object collided with a very young Earth, causing a massive vaporisation and ejection of material into space. Eventually, as this cloud of matter cooled, it began to condense (or to "accrete", in planetary science terms), and to form the Moon.
What is the Moon made of?
The Moon is made of a variety of oxidised minerals such as silicon, iron, aluminum, titanium and magnesium. The darker regions of the Moon (the Mare) are made of a lava-rock-like basalt, which can contain higher proportions of titanium. The lighter parts of the Moon (the Highlands) are made primarily of less dense rocks that are older than the darker basalts.
What is lunar mining?
Lunar mining is the process of extracting and processing valuable materials from the Moon. Aside from abundant mineral resources that can be refined, as is done on Earth, there also exist Rare Earth Elements, helium 3+, and mostly importantly, billons of tons of water ice.
Why is mining the Moon a critical step for human space exploration?
The Moon is the closest celestial body to the Earth. It is 400,000 km away, and it only takes 3 Earth days to arrive there. This short distance means that there is only a 3 seconds time delay when communicating, so it is possible to remotely operate robots, but also to communicate in real time with robots or astronauts.
Additionally, the Moon has all of the necessary resources available to construct habitats, to build power infrastructure, to produce rocket fuel, to construct new types of spacecraft, to grow plants, and it is the best place to build a launching pad for missions into deep space. Moreover, the Moon has sufficient gravity to support long-term human habitation.
What is space mining?
The minerals, metals and gases found on the Moon, 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 in outer space?
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. Space mining will provide raw materials from the space environment 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.
Space 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?
The Moon and NEOs contain volumes of every chemical element needed to support an affluent and fully recycling population.
The list of resources that can be mined is long: aluminum, cobalt, iron, manganese, nickel and titanium can be used in construction. Water, nitrogen and oxygen can be used to sustain space travelers and to grow plants. Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are useful rocket propellants.
Rare Earth Elements, used in everything from catalytic converters to smartphones, could be brought back to Earth. They include iridium, platinum, 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 celestial bodies could be mined?
The Moon was visited several times by the United States, the former Soviet Union and most recently China, and 387 kg of samples returned by the various missions proved the apparent mineral wealth of the lunar rocks and dust. More recent orbital missions, such as NASA’s LCROSS and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission further increased the attractiveness of the Moon by showing large deposits of water ice in several locations scattered throughout the lunar poles.
Additionally, several asteroids and other celestial bodies have already been visited for scientific purposes. ESA’s Rosetta probe and Philae lander were able to reach Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and analyze its makeup. NASA’s DAWN mission is visiting two small planetoids, 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 a combination of public space agency data, as well as their own data, to study accessibility, composition, asteroid spin rates and orbital periods – the time it takes to circle the Sun.
Why does Luxembourg aim 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 overall framework, including but not limited to the legal regime, supports any space companies as well as bolstering global security and stimulating emerging sectors such as robotics and artificial intelligence.
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.
The Moon Agreement calls for an international regime to be established at a later stage by the signing parties in order to govern the exploitation of resources. However, with only 17 signing Parties (Luxembourg did not sign the Agreement) and none of the main space faring countries involved, the Moon Agreement does not impede the exploitation of lunar resources.
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 commercialise the materials they discover.
What is the legal framework in Luxembourg?
Amongst the key actions undertaken within the SpaceResources.lu initiative was the development of a legal and regulatory framework providing for legal certainty as to the ownership of minerals and other valuable space resources identified on celestial bodies. The Grand Duchy is thus the first European country and the second worldwide after the United States to offer a legal framework on the exploration and use of space resources, ensuring that private operators can be confident about their rights on resources they extract in space.
The Luxembourg law provides that space resources are capable of being owned. This approach is consistent with international law and in particular with the Outer Space Treaty.
The Luxembourg law also lays down the regulations for the authorisation and supervision of private space exploration missions, including both exploration and utilisation of such space resources.
Does Luxembourg offer financial support?
Luxembourg offers incentives for private sector companies seeking to develop space mining opportunities and start-ups investing capital to support their growth. Luxembourg’s financial regulatory systems fully support venture capital and private equity investment within a wider European framework.