As a new space race gathers pace, many tech executives have sold Mars as humankind’s off-Earth destiny. But they may be looking too far afield. Our most immediate chance for life-beyond-Earth lies much closer, a path likely to be blazed by far lesser-known companies.
Building colonies on the Moon will “provide a blueprint to Mars”, Nasa scientists say. The men and women who will found these lunar settlements will in all likelihood be employed by small private mining companies, not tech tycoons. Many of these companies are connected to the tiny EU nation of Luxembourg.
Amazingly, Nasa believes such Moon colonies could be established within the next four years.
Takeshi Hakamada is one of those trying to boldly return to where humanity has set foot. This time, however, there is a much more commercial dream in mind: to scour the Moon for profitable mineral and gaseous resources, as well as life-sustaining lunar water.
Hakamada is the CEO of ispace, a private space exploration company based in Tokyo, which also has a presence in Luxembourg. It plans to complete a lunar orbit in 2020, and then attempt a soft lunar landing in 2021.
“Our first two missions will act as a demonstration of our technology. From there, we will begin to establish a high-frequency transportation service to bring customer payloads to the moon,” he says. “If we find water resources on the Moon, we can develop a whole new resource industry in space.” The discovery of a frozen water basin would be a monumental moment for our species, as it would allow humans to stay off Earth for longer periods.
Hakamada is far from alone in his cosmic ambitions. There now are 10 space-mining companies (including ispace) legally domiciled in Luxembourg since the launch of the country’s space resources law in February 2016. This was fuelled by a fund worth $223m (200m euros/£176m). For these space ventures, the Moon is one of two primary targets being considered; commercial ventures also are eyeing near-Earth asteroids for mining metallic resources. Between the Moon and an estimated 16,000 near-Earth asteroids, the resources available could be rich enough to produce the world’s first trillionaire, some experts – including renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson – have said.
拥有这样的野心探索宇宙的，远不止袴田一人。自卢森堡2016年2月颁布太空资源法以来，已有10家太空采矿公司（包括ispace）在卢森堡合法落户，还有2.23亿美元（2亿欧元或1.76亿英镑）的资金支持。对于这些太空企业来说，月球是两个主要考虑对象之一。商业企业也将目光锁定在近地小行星，以开采其金属矿产资源。一些专家，包括知名的天体物理学家泰森（Neil deGrasse Tyson）称，月球和约16,000个近地小行星上的丰富资源足以造就地球上首个万亿富翁。
The current space race sped up after Luxembourg launched its 2016 law. This made it the second country in the world after the US to provide a comprehensive legal framework for the exploitation of resources beyond our planet. “Since February 2016, we interacted with almost 200 companies that have contacted us,” says Paul Zenners, a representative of Luxembourg’s ministry of economy, which runs the government’s SpaceResources.lu initiative.
Luxembourg’s space framework has important differences to that of the US. The latter’s law requires companies to have more than 50% of US-backed equity, while Luxembourg sees no such limitation. The wealthy Grand Duchy, ranked the richest nation in the world by per capita GDP according to the IMF, also has been accused by some of being a tax haven. It does offer a range of tax incentives and benefits, including extremely low rates for the repatriation of capital.
Luxembourg’s 2016 entrance into the space resources race had the effect of attracting the US’s largest companies in the field, including Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, a US-based firm that counts Sir Richard Branson and Google co-founder Larry Page as backers. Planetary Resources, one of the oldest players in the private space industry, sold a $28m (£21.2m) stake to the Grand Duchy. The exact equity amount has never been disclosed, but the firm’s chief acknowledges Luxembourg is one of the biggest investors.
卢森堡2016年加入太空资源竞赛以来已经吸引了美国该领域最大的公司，包括深空工业（Deep Space Industries）和行星资源（Planetary Resources）公司，行星资源得到了英国大亨布兰森（Richard Branson）和谷歌创始人之一佩奇（Larry Page）的支持。行星资源作为最早涉足太空产业的私人公司，卢森堡收购了其2800万美元（2120万英镑）的股份。具体的股本金额未曾披露，但是该公司的首席执行官承认卢森堡是最大的投资者之一。
Luxembourg’s Space Resources Act opened a floodgate for investment, with the ministry of economy now saying the space industry accounts for some 1.8% of the nation’s GDP, the highest ratio of any EU country.
Despite the investment, space mining is an industry that simultaneously highlights ambiguous legal pitfalls.
“It is not clear whether international space law allows for a country to grant property rights to natural resources extracted in space,” a study by Allen and Overy, a Luxembourg-based law firm, found. After the US approved the world’s first space mining law in 2015, Russia was one of the countries to raise objections.
卢森堡的安理律师事务所（Allen and Overy）研究称："国际太空法是否允许一个国家对太空获取的自然资源拥有所有权，目前尚不清楚。"美国2015年通过世界首部太空采矿法后，俄罗斯等国提出反对。
To understand the ambiguity of space, we have to go back to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), a Cold War-era accord prohibiting the national appropriation of celestial bodies. Essentially, space is treated as common ground, not unlike Antarctica. Military development is extremely limited in space by the OST, which was signed by 105 countries. In order to pull off President Trump's recently trumpeted Space Force, Washington would have to exit the OST, further isolating the US.
But the OST noticeably overlooks any reference to the ownership of resources, an omission that the US and Luxembourg have chosen to define. They’re unlikely to be the only ones; the UAE recently signed an agreement to learn from Luxembourg’s legal finesse.
“Luxembourg’s law on the exploration and use of space resources addresses this [omission] and gives clarity on a national level, as a first step to enable space resources activities,” says Zenners. “Luxembourg’s law does not have the objective, purpose or effect of paving the way for any national appropriation of celestial bodies. Only the ownership of space resources is addressed in the legal framework, which also lays down the regulations for the authorisation and the supervision of missions.”
Luxembourg’s small size may help it take the lead in this new goldrush for the riches of space. “Along with the United States, Luxembourg has proven to be a forward-thinking country, and their success will enable private companies to conduct deep space missions,” says Bill Miller, CEO of US-based Deep Space Industries, which uses Luxembourg as its European headquarters.
The debate may not hit fever pitch for some time: space-mining companies have had a habit of touting overambitious launch schedules. But if the profits start rolling in one day in the near future, it’s probably a prudent bet that Luxembourg will be somewhere in the picture.