Who owns the moon?
Buying property or land on Earth is complicated and time-consuming, not to mention expensive, so is it really possible to purchase your own acres on the Moon with just a few Google clicks? Then again, who owns the moon?
Well, there are hundreds of websites for companies offering land in space for as little as $20. Don’t fancy the Moon? How about something out in the sticks, such as Mars or Mercury? Pay your money and your deeds will be sent by email. In an age when space travel is becoming more common, it might be a nice investment for the grandchildren — they could build a house up there.
Surely it’s legitimate, right? These companies wouldn’t actively be selling land on the Moon, or wherever, unless they were authorised to do so, and they probably feed their sales back to NASA or another governing body that acts as some kind of lunar land registry, keeping tabs on who owns what… except that doesn’t happen.
It isn’t possible to own any of the Moon, or any part of space for that matter. Gregory W. Nimitz from San Diego found this out the hard way. In 2000, Nimitz went online and purchased his own platinum-rich asteroid, 433 Eros, aware that Nasa had already sent a probe there. When it finally landed, Nimitz sent an invoice to the space agency for $20 to cover parking and storage, which was promptly ignored. Undeterred, he then initiated legal proceedings. The courts threw the case out, stating that Nimitz had no rights at all to the ownership of the asteroid.
Perhaps he should have read 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 – or Outer Space Treaty, for short. It was drawn up by the United Nations at the height of the Space Race as an agreement between countries that none could claim ownership or sovereignty over anything beyond our home planet.
In other words, space belongs to us all.
As some have pointed out, though, the treaty says that no country or government may claim ownership — it isn’t as clear when it comes to private individuals. Such a loophole was spotted in 1980 by former car salesman Dennis Hope, who founded the Lunar Company, one of the first to offer deeds to plots of land on the Moon. Even before the internet, Hope would sell the paperwork locally, in and around San Francisco. Today, he claims to have made over $10 million from the venture, with a customer base that includes Hollywood stars.
Hope says he wrote to the United Nations to lay claim to the Moon, and, as he did not receive a response, he considers there to be no objection. He has received numerous threats from people, and was taken to court for fraud in Germany and Sweden, but on both occasions the cases were thrown out.
Some legal experts argue that individuals and corporations are included in the Treaty under governments and countries, while others say the document carries little weight and was only ever intended as an agreement in principle, which makes it difficult to enforce.
“Dennis Hope claims to have made over $10 million from selling Moon rights, with a customer base that includes Hollywood stars”
But regardless of whether anyone can say the Moon is theirs, or any other planet or space matter, the fact remains that few have actually visited it. Virgiliu Pop, a Romanian space lawyer — yes, there is such a profession — claimed ownership of the sun online back in 2003 and jokingly threatened to invoice Hope and others for using his sunlight, just to highlight the ridiculousness of it all. He then explained to BBC Focus magazine how a strong case for ownership could be made: “To legally own something, simply expressing the intention to own it, or ‘animus’, is not enough; ‘corpus’, or actual possession, is required. It’s where the phrase ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’ comes from. Land a probe, have the intention to claims it properly, then you stand a chance.”
America planted a flag on the Moon’s surface, which is the kind of action Pop suggests, but it doesn’t own the Moon, as per the Treaty. This allows other countries like Russia and Japan to plan their own missions there. As space travel becomes more frequent, that agreement may need more clarification, but until the online companies can make a trip to the Moon themselves, it looks like those paper deeds bought for $20 are just an amusing keepsake.