Can someone own the moon?

“Buy land,” the old saying goes. “They’re not making it anymore.” But that’s not entirely true. Across the cosmos, the accretion disks of young suns churn out new land all the time — if you can wait a few billion years for it to finish baking.

The ether abounds with established acreage, too. As of February 2012, NASA’s planetary property birddog, the Kepler spacecraft, had found 2,326 planetary candidates (61 confirmed), one of them nestled in its star’s habitable zone [source: NASA]. You know what they say in real estate: location, location, location.

Closer to home, Mars offers more than 55.7 million square miles (144.3 million square kilometers) of prime desert property, and Venus balloons to roughly Earth size, but without all of those pesky oceans [source: NASA]. Granted, its runaway greenhouse effect and lead-melting surface temperatures might be a bit blistering for non-Floridians, but at least there are no mosquitoes.

All kidding aside, a space land rush is the most likely thing in the world (or, rather, out of it). As private companies gaze spaceward with dollar signs in their eyes, and as ever more countries pay the cosmic club’s hefty dues, the time to settle questions of space ownership, use and management might arrive sooner than we expect.

Can someone own the moon? Can you stake a claim to any part of a planet, asteroid or other celestial body, or exploit its resources for profit?

The short answer is no. International law and treaties governing space (that’s right — we actually have space treaties) consider celestial objects the “common heritage of mankind.” They argue that space should benefit everyone, and that all peoples should share free access to celestial bodies. Article II of the 1967 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), settles the issue clearly:

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.
This prohibition extends to private parties, although not everyone shares this reading (more on this later) [sources: United Nations; Jakhu and Buzdugan]. It also encompasses the moon’s subsurface, orbital space and approach trajectories — so no building lunar toll roads.

The documents also require that the moon be used in peace. All parties must preserve it for future generations, keep their activities transparent, avoid getting in each other’s way, warn each other about hazards (such as gun-toting space macaques), offer refuge and aid as needed, and report any resource they might stumble across.

As we’ll see, such legal realities haven’t stopped people from laying claim to the moon, or from selling it off one acre at a time.

There was a time when claiming to be the King of the Moon would have landed you in the booby hatch and selling lunar property would have gotten you a one-way ticket to jail. Yet, today, a quick Internet search will turn up half a dozen companies willing to peddle you a lunar deed.

Half of those links will land you on a page by or about Dennis Hope, an American impresario who claims legal ownership of the moon and most of the rest of the solar system. The self-proclaimed Head Cheese argues that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, in its haste to squash any attempt to claim the moon for king or country, left the door ajar for private title. In 1980, he announced his claim to the United States, the Soviet government and the United Nations; conveniently, he took their lack of reply as tacit consent and has been hawking lunar land ever since [source: CNN].

To reassure his clientele of the security of their property rights, Hope established a galactic government, complete with a ratified constitution, a congress, a unit of currency, a patent office, as well as passports and Internet domain names for sale (.moon, anyone?).

Hope is not alone in his celestial claims. Martin Juergens of Germany asserts that his family has owned the moon since Prussian monarch Frederick the Great bequeathed it to them in the 18th century. So far, no paperwork has come to light supporting Mr. Juergens’s claim [source: CNN].

Along similar lines, in 1997, three men from Yemen sued NASA for invading Mars with its Pathfinder spacecraft and Sojourner rover. The men alleged that their ancestors had held title to the red planet for 3,000 years [source: CNN].

Of course, these paltry planets are chickenfeed compared to the realm snatched up by Chicago publicity man James T. Mangan. On Dec. 20, 1948, Mangan declared his own country, the Nation of Celestial Space, whose territory encompassed — you guessed it — space. Then (this is our favorite part of the story) the self-proclaimed First Representative waited nine minutes for Earth to clear out of the space it then occupied, and annexed that volume as well.

Mangan planned to sell Earth-sized chunks of space at $1 apiece (around $10-$15 in 2012 money). For that price, buyers would become participants (not citizens) of an “intellectual tyranny,” with limited “suggestion rights or thinking rights,” and not much else [source: Science Illustrated].

In the end, claims to outer space amount to novelties or scams that the international community will go on ignoring. Unless a more formal international recognition comes about, we wouldn’t trust those deeds as far as we could throw them — even under the moon’s weaker gravity.

Why? As we’ll see, there’s probably not as much wiggle-room in space law as Mr. Hope and his type like to think.

Lunar real estate agents can argue until the moon is blue that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty applies only to countries; legal realities don’t rise and set on their interpretations.

As of February 2012, the Outer Space Treaty applied to around 125 of the 193 United Nations member states, but there’s more to international law than treaties and agreements, and there’s more to global relations than mere legalities. The fortunes of nations wax and wane according to political, military and economic realities.

Countries not party to the space treaties — or nations that are party to them but opt out later — will pay a considerable political price should they try to force the issue of moon ownership and use. Moreover, far from securing the rights for themselves alone, such countries would pave the way for an international lunar land grab.

The 1984 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, aka the Moon Agreement, came about because the language in the Outer Space Treaty that dealt with private ownership needed to be locked down. Few major space powers are party to the Moon Agreement, however, and none are signatories. In fact, France, Guatemala, India and Romania have signed but not ratified the document — meaning they endorse it but aren’t legally bound by it. Only 13 countries worldwide are legal parties to the agreement [source: United Nations].

For those fond of reading into silences, like our man Dennis Hope, such lackluster support is tantamount to an endorsement of private land rights in space — which would be a dandy theory, were it not for two minor matters: First, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty already covered this legal territory; second, space already falls under a higher legal standard.

“As it happens, nonappropriation of outer space is considered to be a legal principle of jus cogens from which no derogation is permitted,” says Ram S. Jakhu, associate professor at the Institute of Air and Space Law at Montreal’s McGill University.

The term jus cogens (Latin: “compelling law”) refers to absolute moral principles that trump normal international rules, much in the way that the U.S. founding fathers regarded life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be higher rights, both inherent and inalienable. It’s a sort of value system that the international community invokes when it needs to bring parties to justice for slavery or piracy, or to force a national leader to stand trial for genocide. Derogation means the partial repeal or diminishment of a law.

Put it all together and what does it spell? A bar against anyone infringing on our shared natural rights to the moon and its bounty. Think of the moon like the sea: Everyone can use it, but no one can own it.

Jus cogens has stirred up controversy almost since its first official recognition in the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Someday, a country, corporation or individual will test its limits, and the dispute will be settled in the International Court of Justice, Permanent Court of Arbitration or by some other peaceful means.

Such negotiations only constitute a stopgap measure, however; commercial pressure will ultimately carry corporate concerns to the cosmos, and no law or principle precludes the eventual exploitation of outer space by private parties.

For more than a century, writers have looked to the moon as the future home of societies both farcical and frightful but always inevitable. A mere quarter of a million miles (384,400 kilometers) away, like a stepping-stone across a wide river of black, it waits for us still.

One day, humans will exploit the resources of outer space, “drill, baby, drill”-ing their way through the solar system before trekking to far-off worlds. Scientists have already found hints of goodies scattered throughout our solar neighborhood; it’s simply a matter of going after them.

The moon, for example, is a land flowing with milk and honey — if by “milk” and “honey” you mean oxygen, water and prospective sources of fuel and construction materials. Better still, it could be brimming over with helium-3, an isotope prized for its potential uses in nuclear fusion. Russia plans to mine the moon’s helium-3, and China, India, Japan and Germany might have similar designs on the radioisotope [sources: Lasker; Osborn; Williams].

Over time, prospecting for a cosmic Comstock Lode could turn from luxury to necessity. Taking space exploration to the next level might mean mining other worlds for supplies, materials and go-juice. Back home, we might come to rely on an ever-expanding hinterland to support our bustling billions.

For that to pan out, however, experts agree that we must make way for private-sector prospectors. As the world tilts ever more toward privatization, commercialization, deregulation and globalization, and as support for purely national space programs peters out, it becomes clear that the solar empire will be built on the greenbacks of private companies — most likely through the infrastructure, economic incentives and regulatory framework provided by public-private partnerships. Indeed, national governments might well provide the initial market for space products [source: Jakhu and Buzdugan].

Before corporations climb aboard the space train, they must be convinced that their investment will return a sound profit without delay, which means that a market must already exist, costs and risks must fall within acceptable limits and, most important of all, a legal framework must be in place to safeguard their investment.

In other words, before Century 22 can start staking out lunar housing developments or AstroMining Ltd. can begin boring asteroids into Swiss cheese, nations must establish a system for assigning and managing mineral rights, spectrum rights, rights-of-way, orbital slots, intellectual property and title deeds — ideally, in cooperation with the international community.

Current international space law throws roadblocks in the path to such private progress, but they’re nothing that an international consortium of shrewd tycoons (and a few truckloads of lawyers) couldn’t bypass or bulldoze under.

Scholars have already ginned up several theories on how to bridge the gap, drawing upon analogs in similarly fuzzy areas of international law, such as those governing patents, the continental shelves, civil law, salvage and the sea. One extreme solution proposes that a space colony break off and form a new nation [source: Jakhu and Buzdugan].

Barring some massive shift in the political and economic fortunes back on Earth, private space development will happen. In the end, the law will evolve to accommodate it, opening the final frontier to mining and settlement, hopefully in the continued spirit of equitability and international cooperation

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