Etienne Schneider wants to turn tiny Luxembourg into an outer space powerhouse. As the grand duchy’s deputy prime minister and economy minister, he has worked to establish the country as a leader in off-Earth mining — attracting companies aiming to harvest asteroids for their minerals. “I tell my European colleagues, we cannot leave this to the United States again and to Asia,” he says. “Europe has to play a role.”
Schneider, 46, first developed an interest in the subject shortly after he first became a minister in 2012, following a meeting with NASA researchers. “I was wondering what they smoked before meeting me,” he said. “[But] from that point on I dug deeper and deeper into the topic.”
Fast forward to last July, when Luxembourg passed draft legislation giving companies the right to keep space junk from near-Earth objects such as asteroids. Up next: Schneider wants to get the U.N.’s Outer Space Treaty, first signed in 1967, updated to better specify who has the right to mined resources.
Etienne Schneider and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels | Stephanie Lecocq/EPA
Space, says Schneider, should be like the international waters — no country owns the sea, but anyone can fish. He lists Switzerland, Portugal and the UAE as countries sympathetic to his view of a harmonious orbital order. Talks, he adds, are ongoing with Japan, Russia and China.
To date, some 400 kilograms of lunar rock have been brought down to earth, but in the future, enterprising miners could exploit passing asteroids to support missions across the cosmos, in addition to bringing home precious metals like platinum and potentially even water.
That’s at least a decade away. In the meantime, Schneider is pushing to secure the right for companies to use space resources to do things like fuel satellites owned by Luxembourg-based communications company SES. “We are the smallest country, but we are in the driving seat,” he says.