Friday, Sept. 22, NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid mining spacecraft -- launched just over one year ago from Cape Canaveral -- returned to Earth. It didn't stay long, however. Gathering speed from Earth's gravitational pull, OSIRIS accelerated and headed right about out into deep space, en route to a planned 2018 rendezvous with the asteroid "Bennu."

Once there, OSIRIS will attempt to mine mineral samples from the 66.1 million-ton chunk of space-rock. OSIRIS will then return these samples to Earth for examination -- all of which will be perfectly legal, thanks to the good legislators of Luxembourg.

Grainy image of OSIRIS-REx spacecraft

If you squint you can see it -- NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid mining spacecraft, boxed in this NASA photo.

What does Luxembourg have to do with space mining?

Yes, Luxembourg. You might find it strange to hear this, but Luxembourg, a country barely half the size of Rhode Island, has arguably become the leader in the burgeoning field of space exploration -- and space exploitation -- thanks to an ambitious program of law-writing.

Luxembourg has been interested in space since at least back in 1985, when it helped to found the SES satellite communications company. Two months ago, Luxembourg "boldly went" a little further, passing a new law authorizing companies to conduct mining operations on asteroids -- and to keep what they dig up.

Admittedly, Luxembourg's law trails a U.S. effort at space mining regulation -- our 2015 "Space Act" -- by two years. But while both laws address space mining, Luxembourg's law is much more detailed. The Space Act addresses space mining only as an afterthought, after spending most of its text talking about such things as "launch licensing" and "orbital traffic management," and defining who is, and who is not, a "government astronaut". Luxembourg's new law, in contrast, is directly on point, focusing on "the exploration and use of space resources."

What the law says

Pursuant to the 1967 United Nations "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies" (the "Outer Space Treaty"), neither countries, nor private companies, can "subject to national appropriation" the moon, the asteroids, or any other celestial bodies. But slipping neatly through a loophole, Luxembourg's law permits companies to "appropriate" parts of such celestial bodies by mining them. Citing precedents from maritime law, Luxembourg notes that "the sea cannot be appropriated," yet resources such as "shellfish and fish... are capable of being appropriated" from the sea.

Similarly, with mineral resources contained in celestial bodies such as the moon and the asteroids, Luxembourg is giving itself the right to authorize their mining and appropriation.

Authorization, says Luxembourg, can be granted:

  • to commercial corporations (société anonyme) and limited partnerships (société en commandite par actions).
  • "for a limited period of time ... limited to the mission that it covers."
  • without right of transfer from one company to another.
  • and conditioned on proof of the company's "financial soundness" and possession of the "knowledge, skills, and experience [needed] to perform their duties."

Why Luxembourg is saying it

In accordance with the terms of the Outer Space Treaty, Luxembourg requires that Luxembourg-based companies that wish to engage in space mining apply to it for permission. The Treaty, you see, requires that "non-governmental entities" exploiting extraterrestrial resources seek and receive "authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty" -- i.e. their home government. Basically, the Treaty requires that someone with responsibility for a mining company keep an eye on what it's up to.

Luxembourg is volunteering to do this for companies that set up either headquarters or representative offices within its borders. Furthermore, Luxembourg reserves the right to exercise "continuing supervision" over the activities of any of its space mining licensees -- and to withdraw a license when a company fails to fulfill its obligations.

Who benefits?

Luxembourg says it expects as many as 20 different companies and investors to take advantage of its new law, including privately owned Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, both of which set up subsidiaries in Luxembourg in anticipation of the law's passage. (Luxembourg is also co-developing asteroid-mining spacecraft with Deep Space, and Planetary Resources is part-owned by Luxembourg).

In an effort to attract even more companies interested in doing this kind of work, Luxembourg announced last year that is making $228 million in loans for start-up companies wanting to set up headquarters in Luxembourg. But at this point in time, it's accurate to say that most of the companies seriously pursuing space mining -- and seriously considering relocating to Luxembourg -- are small companies, not yet publicly traded, so not something you can invest in (yet).

Here in the U.S., meanwhile, several other companies (including at least one with a declared interest in lunar mining) are currently competing to win Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google Lunar XPrize competition. This competition, which was originally scheduled to take place this year, has been extended to give the companies more time -- March 31, 2018 -- to get their missions in order. Assuming one of them does reach the moon, though, the doors to space mining could soon swing wide open -- and provide investors with an opportunity to profit.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.