What do the United States and Luxembourg have in common (apart from NATO membership)?  Answer:  asteroids.  In separate but potentially related announcements recently, both countries revealed plans relating to exploration and potential mining of asteroids.

Luxembourg, for its part, announced that it is establishing a $227 million fund to attract asteroid mining interests to locate in the tiny nation.  Among companies with which Luxembourg has been in discussion is Planetary Resources, which includes shareholders such as Sir Richard Branson and Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.  The potential payoff:  According to some estimates, a single, 30 meter-wide asteroid could contain up to $50 billion worth of platinum.  That’s quite an incentive!

As part of its plan, Luxembourg will develop the first legal framework in Europe to govern commercial space-mining agreements that may be struck.  The Grand Duchy’s deputy prime minister, Etienne Schneider, said, “We intend to become the European center for asteroid mining.”

Coincidentally, it was also recently reported that NASA has awarded funding to Made in Space, a California company that is developing a plan to turn asteroids essentially into spacecraft.  The Phase 1 grant is for a feasibility study and might be followed by a second phase grant for further development, if warranted.  One possible application of the Made in Space plan would be to “pilot” asteroids into near-Earth orbit for the purpose of extracting valuable minerals.

The ultimate goal of Made in Space, however, is to advance the idea of space colonization by making space-based manufacturing economically viable.  To that end, the company envisions the use of relatively unsophisticated technologies and the properties of physics to transform asteroids into self-operating transportation systems. Not surprisingly, these goals are likely decades from fruition.

Asteroid Exploration

On a much shorter timeline, NASA plans to launch OSIRIS-REx this coming September.  The spacecraft is expected to reach near-Earth asteroid Bennu, in 2018, and will spend a year studying the object.  It is believed that Bennu contains many of the molecules crucial to life on Earth and its oceans, and the mission calls for the craft’s sample container to be returned to Earth in 2023 for analysis.