This is not a frivolous question. China is making great strides towards a presence in space – as is India. Russia, the UK, the EU and the USA are already there. And it’s not all about national pride and the “because it’s there” motivation. It is highly likely that there are some very useful and very valuable minerals on the moon. And right now, it could very well be a “first come, first served” scenario for their usage. Oh, and let’s not forget that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is also in the mix and should soon have the ability to launch and relaunch space vehicles at will. So, this will soon be a government and private interest issue.
Can you own property on the moon? This question may have to be answered sooner than you think.
Earlier in 2009, a NASA probe crashed into the moon’s surface and discovered frozen water – they claim lots of it. This makes establishing a base on the moon a lot more feasible. There are lots of reasons someone might want a moon base. There would be military benefits and scientific ones, too. But most important, there would be commercial ones too. There are some amazing mining opportunities on the moon, including huge quantities of helium 3 which could be used to generate clean energy on earth.
But if you land on the moon and want to do anything on the lunar surface, what are your legal rights? Virgiliu Pop, a researcher at the Romanian Space Agency, has started the discussion in a book, “Who Owns the Moon?” (buy it at Amazon if you want to spend over £ 100!). Technically, the moon is covered by the Outer Space Treaty (formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies), which has been signed by 99 nations. As its name implies, the treaty prohibits “national appropriation” of the moon but is silent on private-sector property rights.
The so-called Moon Treaty, which aimed to place the moon and other celestial bodies under the jurisdiction of international law and the UN Charter, outlaws private property on the moon. But it hasn’t been ratified by even one of the major spacefaring nations. Basically, it’s a failed treaty!
So, who owns the moon? Probably it will be treated in law as a commons: anyone can use it, but nobody can own it or any part of it.
So, what will happen when someone sets up a base and starts mining? Probably the commons approach will collapse in a heap. It will become like the old “wild west” or frontier lands of old. Now, as then, first comers rule. Private explorers could stake a claim and work their plot of land, and governments would come along later to enforce property rights. After a few wars about who actually was the government.
You heard it here first, but I’d predict a legal challenge on this issue within the next few years. In fact, the next person who steps foot on the moon will probably have a shovel in his hand and a lawyer in the landing module!