Whether its asteroid prospecting, mining interests, or space tourism, a lot of industries are taking aim at space exploration. Some pioneering spirits – such as Elon Musk – even believe humanity’s survival depends on our colonizing onto other planets – such as the Moon and Mars. It’s little surprise then that lunar land peddlers have begun making deals for land on the Moon.
Currently, a company known as Moon Estates is offering single acre plots for just £16.75 (that’s about $27 US). More importantly, large corporations, entrepreneurs, and even some politicians are eying property on the Moon, hoping to get at its rich resources before long.
Russia has plans for a manned colony which they hope to begin building around 2027. Japan has similar plans, and the Japanese construction firm Shimizu has proposed building a Luna Ring – a ring of solar panels around the moon that would beam enough energy to power the entire planet back to Earth.
Because of this, there are concerns that laws and regulations will need to be drafted to help us all avoid a lot of cutthroat competition and ruthless exploitation when Moon settlement occurs. In addition, the tricky issues of property rights versus sovereignty will need to be ironed out in advance.
If both private interests and governments become involved in Moon prospecting, will this mean an extension of territorial laws (and disputes) into space?
Not surprisingly, these concerns have been raised before. During the Cold War, when Russia and the US were racing to conquer space before the other, the issue of national sovereignty and territorial rights naturally reared its ugly head. Luckily, both sides agreed on the common principle that space belong to no one.
In the early 1950s, the US government lobbied for the recognition of outer space as a global commons, mainly because the US was having a hard time infiltrating the Soviet Union with spies. Being dependent on open access to Soviet air space in order to gather intelligence, US officials were insistent that space remain open too.
The Russians agreed, since they too were in no rush to fight the Cold War on yet another front. Hence, both sides perceived outer space as a commons that was non-appropriable – chiefly as a way of preventing disputes over national sovereignty in space.
This principle was put into legislative form in 1967 with Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, which clearly forbade “national appropriation by claims of sovereignty, means of use or occupation by any other means”.
However, the introduction of private business into space exploration has complicated matters. As it stands, legal commentators disagree over whether this prohibition is also valid for private appropriation.
Some “space lawyers” have argued that property rights should be recognized on the basis of jurisdiction rather than territorial sovereignty. According to all available records, there was a great deal of opposition to private appropriations when the Space Treaty was being drafted. However, no explicit prohibitions ever made it into Article II.
The subsequent Moon Agreement of 1979 sought to correct for this by including an explicit ban. However, only 16 countries – none of which were involved in manned space exploration – signed the agreement, which left it rather toothless as an international standard.
Consequently, many space entrepreneurs – particularly Dennis Hope of the Lunar Embassy Corporation – think that there is a loophole in Article II which allows private citizens to claim ownership of the moon. Back in 1980, he claimed ownership of the Moon and began selling plots. He has since amassed $11 million dollars from his sales, and his clientele include such big names as Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and George Lucas.
But most space lawyers point out that states assume international responsibility for activities in space, whether by national companies or private adventurers – and therefore that the same prohibition extends to the private sector.
Hence, legal recognition by a superior authority (such as a nation state, an international organization, or treaty,) is needed if anyone buying these plots wants their property rights to be acknowledged. And since states are not allowed to claim sovereign rights in outer space, landed property on the moon and planets will, in all likelihood, be outlawed.
Naturally, all this remains strictly theoretical for the time being. Until such time as people are able to physically occupy space on the Moon, land deeds will remain meaningless. However, technology could be very close to resolving this issue.
For example, proponents of telepossession point to past instances where salvage companies were able to claim undersea wrecks as property after exploring them with robots.
NASA is already engaged in a form of telexploration on Mars with its army of robotic rovers and orbiters, and this process may be exploited by asteroid prospectors who intend to begin staking claims in the Asteroid Belt next year.
And while legal ownership of the Moon and Mars is prohibited, the rights to explore and exploit natural resources are a bit more ambiguous. It would therefore not be farfetched to assume that entrepreneurs would attempt to make claims to the Moon’s or Mars’ supplies of minerals, water, or Rare Earth Metals in the future.
Further Reading: The Conversation