Back in April, Luxembourg’s crown prince, his wife and government officials paid a visit to Planetary Resources, putting on white gowns, gloves, wispy caps and baby blue bootees — a distinctly unroyal outfit sometimes called a “bunny suit” — to take a close look at where the company is assembling small satellites.
In June, Mr. Schneider returned to the United States to host a symposium with a roomful of bankers and venture capitalists, a vivid demonstration that private space investment has reached a tipping point of credibility.
A Goldman Sachs report about innovative space businesses that came out in the spring seemed to agree. “Space mining could be more realistic than perceived,” the report said. “While the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower.”
At the Manhattan presentation, Mr. Schneider readily acknowledged that the notion of asteroid mining sounds like science fiction and that he often gets quizzical questions about why Luxembourg is spending money chasing this.
Mr. Schneider recalled that during a visit to Silicon Valley in 2012, he met S. Pete Worden, then the director of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., who suggested that Luxembourg look into asteroid mining.
“At the time, I listened to him and wondered what this guy might have smoked,” Mr. Schneider said.
But more discussions and research convinced Mr. Schneider this was a promising possibility.
For Planetary Resources, the first wave of development is to culminate in a doughnut-shape spacecraft heading on a prospecting mission to a near-Earth asteroid in 2020.
Sometime after that, the company hopes to mine in earnest — for seemingly mundane water ice. But water, in addition to potentially providing something to drink for astronauts, can be split into hydrogen and oxygen. Both can be used as rocket propellent; the oxygen, of course, also can provide air to breathe.
As a business, Planetary Resources is betting that by the time it extracts water from an asteroid, there will be a customer like NASA interested in buying water, hydrogen and oxygen.
Eventually, the company aims to extract platinum, currently worth more than $900 an ounce, and other precious metals.
To make these pursuits easier, Luxembourg passed a space law that took effect this summer. Planetary Resources has set up its European office there. Moves like this one are in part motivating policymakers in the United States to devote more attention to American laws that currently govern commercial space activities.
Revising Space Law
Ambiguities in the Outer Space Treaty currently create uncertainty over whether anyone can profit from such business ventures. Article II in particular states, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”