“These five years have gone by very quickly,” said in an interview with Delano. There are more than 70 space or satellite companies who have set up an office in Luxembourg, a number that has more than doubled since the government in 2016 launched the Spaceresources.lu initiative and declared the sector a priority to diversify its economy.
The number of people working in the field has grown to 1,400.
What’s taking a bit more time, however, is for the sector to become profitable. “With everything that’s happened over the last five years, we probably need five years more to make the first assessment,” said Serres. “If you look back at SES, it took them ten years to be recognised on the market and start doing serious business and having a certain success.”
Spire, one of the early arrivals under the space resources programme, is looking to potentially becoming profitable in 2024. It was founded in 2012. Auditor EY in its report on the 2022 results of Kleos, founded in 2017, said there was “significant doubt” about the company’s financial stability.
At the end of the day, companies need to convince an investor to invest.
“At the end of the day, companies need to convince an investor to invest,” the LSA CEO said. “It takes time, you have to convince a lot of people, explain a lot of things.”
While the LSA helps provide access to research and development funding through the LuxImpulse programme with the ESA as well as other national schemes, this de-risking does not absolve companies from doing their work. “They need separate funding.”
How long it takes to become profitable depends on the product or service delivered, how long the development phase takes, whether that involves tests in orbit further delaying the process. “Profitability not only depends on the quality of the product, but also on how the market is ready to adopt it and the funding available by customers.”
The range of businesses is wide, from satellite and data-as-a-service companies to mobile solar panel factories that could one day build panels in space with sand found on the moon. “What a lot of the companies have in common is this commercially driven approach,” said Serres. “That means companies that have customers that are not only institutional organisations.”
And the field of applications in the private sector is vast, from telecommunications and navigation to the maritime and aerospace industries, and Earth observation. “It has plenty of possible applications.”
Other domains are meteorology, with better data delivered to predict weather patterns and natural disasters, but also agriculture, where it can help with land planning, risk assessment and insurance. “There is a huge potential.”
Going into sectors that haven’t traditional dealt with space, also means that it can take longer to sign up customers. “They don’t know what space can offer.”
And there is room for more, although the LSA isn’t actively seeking out businesses it wants to bring to Luxembourg. “We have been contacted by so many people and companies,” said Serres. “We are still reacting to all the requests and demands, which is also an advantage. When someone is coming to you, that means they’re motivated to do something.”
Finding space allies
The LSA represents Luxembourg within the European Space Agency, sitting on “between 15 to 20 boards and committee,” Serres said. The ESA “often enables larger projects that countries would not be able to do alone.”
If we can use the resources in space, process them, manufacture something more complex directly in space… this will change our lives.
At bilateral level, it’s about “finding likeminded countries” who support the same projects and ideas. For Luxembourg, that means finding allies on space resources. “If we can use the resources in space, process them, manufacture something more complex directly in space… this will change our lives.”
Luxembourg has signed around a dozen memorandums of understanding on space with countries ranging from the US, India, Japan and South Korea to China and Russia. A space laboratory that was set to land in the grand duchy through the cooperation with China never materialised.
The MoUs, Serres said, served to create awareness and set an agenda. Many discussions, however, were slowed down during the covid-19 pandemic and the LSA is working on picking up where things left off. “We are a facilitator. What we try to build up is this connection with our ecosystem.”
Research and education
Space resources week--this year hosted from 19 to 21 April--industry days and other events serve to “bring the ecosystems together and see if there are partnerships that can be built.”
Part of that ecosystem are also the Space Master at the University of Luxembourg, the Master of Laws specialisation in satellite communications law, the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (Esric) and research conducted at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (List) and other entities.
There are initiatives for young graduates to work at the ESA for one year but also programmes for much younger learners at primary and secondary school level. “The vision is to really have the whole chain, so that at the end, hopefully, we will have more people motivated to go into these careers and be skilled to support the development of the ecosystem locally.”
UN space resources working group
When Luxembourg in 2017 became the first European country to pass legislation giving companies the rights to space resources they extract from asteroids or other celestial bodies, there was no shortage of criticism, also in forums such as the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (Copuos).
The Outer Spaces Treaty prohibits companies from claiming territory in space, which is why Luxembourg law--and similar legislation in the US--grants ownership of the resources only once they are extracted.
We have to have an international debate, probably one day also international regulation.
Last year, Copuos set up a working group with a five-year mandate to study the legal aspects of space resources and “assess the benefits of further development of a framework for such activity,” an official document states.
“It was a very strong political message on where Luxembourg wants to go. But of course, we were conscious that we couldn’t do that alone in our corner. We have to have an international debate, probably one day also international regulation,” Serres said. “There have been major steps at UN level. People are taking it seriously.”
What’s up ahead
And in an election year, Serres counts on the next Luxembourg government to also keep taking space seriously. “I’m pretty confident that this support will continue, has has been the case over the last decade,” said Serres, adding that given the growth of the sector it would not make sense to stop support now.
The space sector accounts for around 2% of Luxembourg’s GDP.
Some of the milestones yet to come are the opening of Luxembourg’s Space Campus, which is meant to bring together the sector at one location. “This will be an important step for us.” The results of the UN working group will also be due by the time the LSA turns ten.
Looking ahead at the next five years, Serres said the LSA’s success relies on the success of the space ecosystem. Having more companies come in, “is definitely what we would like to see,” he said. “But at the same time, those who are here reaching a level of maturity where they can start being more independent. This is definitely what we’re looking for.”