Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 salutes the American flag on the Moon, August 1st, 1971. Photo: David R. Scott, Apollo 15 Commander.

Star Laws

At the end of January, $5.25 million was handed out to teams of scientists attempting to reach the moon. The potential launch date for these private enterprises is December 2016 and if any of them succeed it will be the first private Earth vehicle to ever land on a celestial body. The question is, what will they do when they get there?

Google’s Lunar X-Prize was founded in 2007. Its aim is to encourage privately-funded organisations to find cost-effective and innovative ways to land on and explore the moon. Of the 33 original competitors, 16 teams are currently still in the running. The winning team will net a cool $20 million.

Trying to reach the moon isn’t, as you might expect, very easy. The original deadline of December 2012 was far too ambitious and has twice been pushed back. Landing on the moon is not an every day occurrence. It’s not even an every decade occurrence. Since 1976, only one vehicle has landed on the moon – the Chinese Chang’e 3.

But with January’s milestone prizes awarded, it looks more and more likely that 1 or more private companies will land on the moon in the near future. The most likely date is late 2016. What does this mean for the moon? And who owns it anyway?

You may be surprised to learn that the international community has already considered this problem, and there are a few treaties in place to make sure we don’t exploit our celestial bodies. There’s even an United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. The wonderfully named Outer Space Treaty stipulates that no nation or state can own, lay claim to or legislate the moon or space.

That’s not to say that some wily folks haven’t tried. Denis Hope, an American man, has been peddling real estate on the moon for decades. He is apparently attempting to exploit a seeming loophole of the treaty – it only applies to nations and states (and only those that signed it). As an individual, he feels entitled to sell land on the moon because he’s not bound by the treaty. But as long as no government organisation endorses his sales, the deeds he sells have no legitimacy.

 Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

The Outer Space Treaty extends beyond the moon and also includes objects in orbit. Any object launched by a state remains the property and responsibility of that state. If your satellite crashes into other satellites, causing damage, or falling to earth, the state from which it was launched is accountable. You can already see a problem here. This provision was created at a time when only states were launching things into space. Damage done by satellites owned by private companies are de facto included, but things could become tricky if the satellite owner is a global corporate.

If you think that committing a crime on the International Space Station would be a good idea because it’s not in any criminal jurisdiction, think again. There’s a provision for that. Each module of the ISS is the respective territory of its nation. Basically, that means that when astronauts are hanging out in the Japanese module Kibo, they are on (in?) Japanese territory. The ISS treaty says that a crime committed by an astronaut will be investigated and tried by their own nation, unless the crime was committed against the person or property of another nation. The wronged nation then has the option to prosecute the offender and if no extradition treaties exist between the nations, the treaty acts as one.

Google anything to do with the space treaty and the moon, and that guy Denis Hope will show up. Debate over whether what he is doing is legal centres around the treaty. For me, it’s simple. With no over-arching governmental authority, anyone can start selling pieces of the moon. I could start selling deeds tomorrow which conflict with or impinge on the ones that Hope has sold. Where would our disgruntled clients go for recompense? All sales of property require a form of legitimation, something Hope simply hasn’t got. The treaty may have no teeth, but it effectively stops anyone else getting their teeth into the moon.

The Google Lunar X Prize teams, if they make it to the moon, land, send back their images and travel 500 metres, can certainly lay claim to their $20 million. But will they be able to lay claim to anything else? Can they, for example, start exploiting the moon for its resources? This is more complicated. Hope’s claims aside, no one owns the moon. If they can bring back moon rocks, why not moon oil, moon diamonds, moon rubies or whatever else may be buried beneath the surface? Fortunately, its desolateness is on the side of the moon. Experts believe that the cost of any mining enterprise would far outweigh any potential benefits. Basically, there’s not much up there worth digging for. We’re looking at decades before that possibility is an actual probability. Hopefully, some concrete laws are in place before that happens.

It’s not a completely lawless wild frontier out there in space, but, like any international jurisdiction, it’s pretty complicated. Let’s hope we continue to have star laws, and never star wars.