Can you buy Land on the Moon?

Have you ever heard that it’s possible to buy property on the Moon? Perhaps someone has told you that, thanks to certain loopholes in the legal code, it is possible to purchase your very own parcel of lunar land. And in truth, many celebrities have reportedly bought into this scheme, hoping to snatch up their share of land before private companies or nations do.

Despite the fact that there may be several companies willing to oblige you, the reality is that international treaties say that no nation owns the Moon. These treaties also establish that the Moon is there for the good of all humans, and so it’s impossible for any state to own any lunar land. But does that mean private ownership is impossible too? The short answer is yes.

The long answer is, it’s complicated. At present, there are multiple nations hoping to build outposts and settlements on the Moon in the coming decades. The ESA hopes to build a “international village” between 2020 and 2030 and NASA has plans for its own for a Moon base.

The ESA recently elaborated its plan to create a Moon base by the 2030s. Credit: Foster + Partners is part of a consortium set up by the European Space Agency to explore the possibilities of 3D printing to construct lunar habitations. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners
The ESA recently elaborated its plan to create a Moon base by the 2030s. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

The Russian space agency (Roscosmos) is planning to build a lunar base by the 2020s, and the China National Space Agency (CNSA) is planning to build such a base in a similar timeframe, thanks to the success of its Chang’e program.

Because of this, a lot of attention has been focused lately on the existing legal framework for the Moon and other celestial bodies. Let’s take a look at the history of “space law”, shall we?

Outer Space Treaty:

On Jan. 27th, 1967, the United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union sat down together to work out a treaty on the exploration and use of outer space. With the Soviets and Americans locked in the Space Race, there was fear on all sides that any power that managed to put resources into orbit, or get to the Moon first, might have an edge on the others – and use these resources for evil!

As such, all sides signed “The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” – aka. “The Outer Space Treaty”. This treaty went into effect on Oct. 10th, 1967, and became the basis of international space law. As of September 2015, it has been signed by 104 countries (while another 24 have signed the treaty but have not competed the ratification process).

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. shown collecting samples on the lunar surface with the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the Apollo 16 mission. Credit: NASA

The treaty is overseen the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). It’s a big document, with lots of articles, subsections, and legalese. But the most relevant clause is Article II of the treaty, where it 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.”

“Loophole” in the Treaty:

Despite clearly saying that Outer Space is the property of all humanity, and can only be used for the good of all, the language is specific to national ownership. As a result, there is no legal consensus on whether or not the treaty’s prohibition are also valid as far as private appropriation is concerned.

However, Article II addresses only the issue of national ownership, and contains no specific language about the rights of private individuals or bodies in owning anything in outer space. Because of this, there are some who have argued that property rights should be recognized on the basis of jurisdiction rather than territorial sovereignty.

About 20 minutes after the first step, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface and became the second human to set foot on the Moon. Credit: NASA
About 20 minutes after the first step, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface and became the second human to set foot on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Looking to Article VI though, it states that governments are responsible for the actions of any party therein. So it is clear that the spirit of the treaty is meant to apply to all entities, be they public or private. As it states:

“States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.”

In other words, any person, organization or company operating in space is answerable to their respective government. But since no specific mention is made of private ownership, there are those who claim that this represents a “loophole” in the treaty which allows them to claim and sell land on the Moon at this time. Because of this ambiguity, there have been attempts to augment the Outer Space Treaty.

The Moon Treaty:

On Dec. 18th, 1979, members of the United Nations presented an agreement which was meant to be a follow-up to the Outer Space Treaty and close its supposed loopholes. Known as the “Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” – aka. “The Moon Treaty” or “Moon Agreement” – this treaty intended to establish a legal framework for the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies.

On the Lunar Surface – Apollo 11 astronauts trained on Earth to take individual photographs in succession in order to create a series of frames that could be assembled into panoramic images. This frame from fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA
Buzz Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site is the only good picture of mission commander Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

Much like the Outer Space Treaty, the agreement established that the Moon should be used for the benefit of all humanity and not for the sake of any individual state. The treaty banned weapons testing, declared that any scientific research must be open and shared with the international community, and that nations and individuals and organizations could not claim anything.

In practice, the treaty failed because it has not been ratified by any state that engages in crewed space exploration or has domestic launch capability. This includes the United States, the larger members of the ESA, Russia, China, Japan and India. Though it expressly forbids both national and private ownership of land on the Moon, or the use thereof for non-scientific, non-universal purposes, the treaty effectively has no teeth.

Bottom line, there is nothing that expressly forbids companies from owning land on the Moon. However, with no way to claim that land, anyone attempting to sell land to prospective buyers is basically selling snake oil. Any documentation that claims you own land on the Moon is unenforceable, and no nation on the planet that has signed either the Outer Space Treaty or the Moon Treaty will recognize it.

Moon Map
The annotated features on the lunar nearside. You’ll notice, not one of them says “Land for Sale!” Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Peter Freiman(Cmglee). Background photograph by Gregory H. Revera.

Then again, if you were able to fly up to the Moon and build a settlement there, it would be pretty difficult for anyone to stop you. But don’t expect that to the be the last word on the issue. With multiple space agencies looking to create “international villages” and companies hoping to create a tourist industry, you could expect some serious legal battles down the road!

But of course, this is all academic. With no atmosphere to speak of, temperatures reaching incredible highs and lows – ranging from 100 °C (212 °F) to -173 °C (-279.4 °F) – its low gravity (16.5 % that of Earth), and all that harsh Moon dust, nobody outside of trained astronauts (or the clinically insane) should want to spend a significant amount of time there!

We have written many interesting articles about the Moon here at Universe Today. Here’s Can you Really Name a Star?, Make a Deal for Land on the Moon, and our series on Building a Moon Base.

Want more information about the Moon? Here’s NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science page. And here’s NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Sources:

Make a Deal for Land on the Moon

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?

A lunar base, as imagined by NASA in the 1970s. Image Credit: NASA
A lunar base, as imagined by NASA in the 1970s. Image Credit: NASA

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”.

The perigee Super Moon on June 23, 2013, taken with a Skywatcher ED80 Refractor and a Canon 600D at prime focus. Best 20 of 40 images stacked in Registax 6. False colour removed as the Moon appeared dull red as it was so low in sky. Credit and copyright: James Lennie.
Earth’s Moon. Credit and copyright: James Lennie.

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.

Artist concept of a base on the Moon. Credit: NASA, via Wikipedia
Artist concept of a base on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

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