Humans first set foot on the Moon half a century ago, but it remains largely unexplored and uncolonized to this day, and humankind cannot agree on how to do business there. After all, who “owns” the Moon?
Fifty years after Neil Armstrong made “one small step” on the surface of the Moon on July 21, 1969, the race to once again reach the Earth’s closest – yet still so distant – celestial body seems to be in full swing.
Interest in our planet’s only natural satellite grew for about three years, between 1969 and 1972, then waned as the rest of the Apollo program was canceled.
It has recently been reignited, however, as more nations join the new space race – this time as less of a quest for glory or science, and fueled more by the idea of potentially using the Moon’s natural resources. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $25.00 (as of 08:40 EDT - Details)
As newcomers share their plans for future lunar exploration, and established spacefaring nations such as the US and Russia plan a return to the Moon, many questions arise.
Who ‘owns’ the Moon?
Legally, no one. The Outer Space Treaty (OST), which came into being in 1967 (two years before the first lunar landing), explicitly states that exploration and use of the Moon “shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries” and by no means can be “subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty” or any other means. Does this make exploration and any peaceful research activities related to the Moon free to anyone with enough resources and the will to do so?
“The Moon is certainly the object of international law and is not a legal gap,” Alexander Vylegzhanin, a professor at MGIMO University, told RT.
The 1979 ‘Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and other Celestial Bodies’, (the Moon Agreement) provides specific rules for activities related to the natural resources of the Moon (Article 8, in concreto). It also provides for the establishment of an international regime “to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the Moon” (Article 11).
The problem is that the Moon Agreement, according to Professor Vylegzhanin, “has not received great support” – less than 20 nations (and neither the US nor Russia) are party to it.
His colleague, Mariam Yuzbashyan, associate professor at MGIMO University, added that “it will be important to preserve compliance with the cornerstone principles of international space law, which are of great significance for further stable development of space activities, including the commercial ones and specifically those in potential resource exploitation. As to the latter at best before any potential conflicts could arise a special international regime should be agreed upon by most states.”
“Another legitimate way is the harmonized interpretation of the OST by the leading outer space states, USA and Russia firstly, in a broader context of customary international law,” Professor Vylegzhanin said.
Why the Moon?
If sovereignty cannot be legally claimed over even the smallest bit of what was long considered a dead space rock, why is almost every space-aspiring nation so enthusiastic about it? In short, because of the prospects for future space exploration.
It turns out that the Moon has resources that could greatly advance space exploration – and exploitation. One such resource is water. Traces of it in the form of ice were discovered by an Indian mission in 2008.
The prospect of water has given rise to dreams of permanent bases on the Moon, using lunar ice as a source of rocket propellant for more ambitious space travel, such as going to Mars and beyond.
India is now preparing to launch its second mission to the lunar south pole to look for water.
Russia and the US also plan to launch their own missions to explore lunar resources, in 2021 and 2023 respectively, while China seeks to send a whole series of probes.
Additionally, the Moon is believed to harbor extensive deposits of Helium-3, a rare isotope which scientists believe could be used to fuel yet-to-be invented nuclear fusion reactors.
Can the Moon become a conflict zone any time soon?
This kind of international competition naturally raises the worrisome idea that a war could break out.
Existing international treaties forbid the “establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications” on the Moon, as well as the testing of any weapons there.
In fact, the Moon is even better protected than the Earth itself, as the Outer Space Treaty only prohibits weapons of mass destruction from Earth’s orbit.
Can a private company claim part of the Moon’s surface for itself?
As is the case with national governments, no corporation can legally claim a piece of the Moon for sole ownership. After all, the treaty states that activities carried out by governmental and non-governmental entities alike still must conform to its provisions, which generally rule out any appropriation of even a part of the lunar surface – or that of any other celestial body for that matter.
It is, however, a bit more complicated for corporations, because any commercial activity in space unrelated to direct appropriation of celestial bodies or their parts is not forbidden.
In other words, the OST does not explicitly state what private companies are allowed or forbidden to do in space. This is hardly surprising, given that it was written at a time when only a handful of science fiction authors imagined private space exploration could be a thing (Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Man Who Sold The Moon’ being one example).
What the OST says is that “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.” That certainly looks like a loophole big enough to drive a rocket ship through.
And some companies seem to have already made use of it. One of them is a US entity called Lunar Embassy.
Founded in 1980, the company laid claim to literally all celestial bodies in the Solar System except the Earth and Sun, and duly registered at a local US government office for claim registries. Since that time, the firm has been selling parts of celestial surfaces, including that of the Moon, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, to unsuspecting people and has managed to sell as many as 611 million acres (about 2.5 million square kilometers) of extraterrestrial “land.”
The Lunar Embassy argues that international law may ban states and corporations from appropriating celestial bodies, but it says nothing about individuals. However, a person cannot sell something they do not own and, as mentioned above, a company cannot own any “piece of territory” beyond Earth.
Can companies legally extract resources from the Moon?
Unlike issues of sovereignty over the celestial bodies or the militarization of space, economic activities beyond Earth do not seem to be thoroughly regulated at the international level. The OST only says that the “use” of the Moon “shall be free”for all nations without any discrimination, as long as they do not claim any part of its surface for themselves.
In other words, the OST does not openly allow resources to be extracted from the Moon for commercial use, but does not ban anyone from doing so either. Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, however, argued in 2017 that claiming any resources extracted from a celestial body is equivalent to claiming a part of that body.
The Russian objections were in response to a law passed in Luxembourg which boasted of being “the first European country to set up a legal framework for space exploration and the use of space resources.”
The United States, however, was the first country to pass a law authorizing the extraction of “space resources.” The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 gave Americans the right to “possess, own, transport, use and sell” resources extracted from the Moon or other celestial bodies.
What about other celestial bodies?
So far, the rules laid out in the Outer Space Treaty apply to any celestial body beyond Earth – which means the Moon, Mars, and even the smallest asteroid. This means we are unlikely to see ‘star wars’ any time soon, but the issue of the exploitation of space resources remains complicated.
At this point in time, no nation or corporation has the technology to successfully extract resources from celestial bodies. Plans for permanent bases on the lunar surface are still a long way from becoming a reality.
Roscosmos recently mulled creating a Moon base around 2040 or so. NASA has a more ambitious schedule, which involves establishing “a sustained presence” on the Earth’s satellite by 2028. China also mentioned it could build a research base near the Moon’s South Pole around 2030. This means that any potential conflict in competition over “space resources” is at least a decade away, if not more. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $25.00 (as of 11:40 EDT - Details)
“For now, there is no special legal regime regulating economic activities in space,” Aslan Abashidze, the head of the International Law Department at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN) and a member of the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights, told RT. The further development of technology in space resource extraction would most likely require a new international treaty regulating this field, he believes.
The development of a new treaty might be impeded by tensions and disagreements between major space nations, Abashidze said, adding that “the states would hardly reach a consensus on that matter.”
However, if the legal issues are not settled by the time nations and corporations do develop space exploitation technology, there will be the temptation to start claiming not only the resources but the celestial bodies themselves, leading to a situation in which some parts of outer space will not be “free for all” humankind anymore.
Reprinted from RT News.