Owning land here on Earth is nice and legal. But what about a plot of land on the Moon or Mars? When can I buy some ice on Europa?
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Compared to a regular human, the Earth is enormous. And compared to the Earth, the Universe is really enormous. Like, maybe infinitely enormous.
And yet, Earth is the only place humans are allowed to own. You can buy a plot of land in the city or the country, but you can’t buy land on the Moon, on Mars or on Alpha Centauri.
It’s not that someone wouldn’t be willing to sell it to you. I could point you at a few locations on the internet where someone would be glad to exchange your “Earth money” for some property rights on the Moon. But I can also point you to a series of United Nations resolutions which clearly states that outer space should be free for everyone. Not even the worst rocky outcrop of Maxwell Montes on Venus, or the bottom of Valles Marineris on Mars can be bought or sold.
However, the ability to own property is one of the drivers of the modern economy. Most people either own land, or want to own land. And if humans do finally become a space faring civilization, somebody is going to want to own the property rights to chunks of space. They’re going to want the mining rights to extract resources from asteroids and comets.
We’re going to want to know, once and for all, can I buy the Moon?
Until the space age, the question was purely hypothetical. It was like asking if you could own dragons, or secure the mining rights to dreams. Just in case those become possible, my vote to both is no.
But when the first satellite was placed into orbit in 1957, things became a lot less hypothetical. Once multiple nations had reached orbitable capabilities, it became clear that some rules needed to be figured out – the Outer Space Treaty.
The first version of the treaty was signed by the US, Soviet Union and the United Kingdom back in 1967. They were mostly concerned with preventing the militarization of space. You’re not allowed to put nuclear weapons into space, you’re not allowed to detonate nuclear weapons on other planets. Seriously, if you’ve got plans and they relate to nuclear weapons, just, don’t.
Over the years, almost the entire world has signed onto the Outer Space Treaty. 106 countries are parties and another 24 have signed on, but haven’t fully ratified it yet.
In addition to all those nuclear weapons rules, the United Nations agreed on several other rules. In fact, its full name is, The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.
Here’s the relevant language:
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.
No country can own the Moon. No country can own Jupiter. No country can own a tiny planet, off in the corner of the Andromeda Galaxy. And no citizens or companies from those countries can own any property either.
And so far, no country has tried to. Seriously, space exploration is incredibly difficult. We’ve only set foot on the Moon a couple of times, decades ago, and never returned.
But with all the recent developments, it looks like we might be getting closer to wondering if we can own dragons, or a nice acreage on Mars.
Perhaps the most interesting recent development is the creation of not one, not two, but three companies dedicated to mining resources from asteroids: Planetary Resources, Kepler Energy, and Deep Space Industries.
Just a single small asteroid could contain many useful minerals, and there could potentially be tens of billions of dollars in profit for anyone who can sink robotic mining shafts into them.
The three different companies have their own plans on how they’re going to identify potential mining targets and extract resources, and I’m not going to go into all the details of what it would take to mine an asteroid in this video.
But according to the Outer Space Treaty, is it legal? The answer, is: probably.
The original treaty was actually pretty vague. It said that no country can claim sovereignty over a world in space, but that doesn’t mean we can’t utilize some of its resources. In fact, future missions to the Moon and Mars depend on astronauts “living off the land”, harvesting local resources like ice to make air, drinking water and rocket fuel. Or building structures out of Martian regolith.
Mining an entire asteroid for sweet sweet profit is just a difference of scale.