Lunar property rigths

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A somewhat abstract but never the less important problem with the anticipated return of humans to the moon, the coming private robotic exploration (firstly through the GLXP) and the expected utilization of moon resources in the future is property rights. Who owns the moon? There are many opinions about that, and it has become a popular topic for discussion both inside and outside the space community.

Several people has claimed ownership the moon (mostly based on national property laws) and subsequently started selling moon properties on the Moon to the general public. Such property claims are widely regarded as void by space law experts, as the Outer Space Treaty, explicitly prohibits ownership of any object in outer space (Article II: “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.”).

On the other side, there is a surge of private companies that want to return to the Moon to explore the surface with rovers, and the first wave is expected already in a few years. These companies are certainly not doing this for fun only, and will need a way of covering the massive expenses associated with building, launching and operating a rover on the Moon. Gaining the sole right to use any resources discovered will be key to develop a healthy business on the Moon according to those planning to develop business on the Moon.

In this respect, it looks like a compromise between the strict restrictions of the Outer Space Treaty and the “for-profit” desires of the coming lunar industry has to be found. It is not the purpose of the outer space treaty to hinder the first steps of a permanent human presence on the Moon and on other celestial bodies such as Mars, but it does not open up for a race to secure economical advantages over the natural resources of the Moon either. So how can this dilemma be approached?

  • The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has successfully managed the valuable orbital slots in geo-stationary orbit (GEO) for many years on behalf of the United Nation (UN). These are resources in space that are owned by nobody, but rights to the usage of this (renewable) resource is granted to countries/regions, and the countries which have been given the right to use a certain orbital location can then either exploit it themselves, or distribute the rights to companies providing commercial telecommunication services.
  • Another example is the Antarctic Treaty, in force since 1960. This treaty regulates the use of the South Pole, being the only uninhabited continent on Earth. It is focused on a scientific and peaceful use of the area through international cooperation. However, it does not address the problem of conflicting claims or private ownership among other things.
  • The Svalbard Treaty from 1920 grants Norway sovereignty over Svalbard, but opens up for commercial exploitation over natural resources to all signatories to the treaty and Norway, as the claiming nation, must treat all the signatories like equals. The treaty opens up for exclusive hunting right (not so relevant to the moon perhaps, but it can be interpreted as a right to the exclusive exploitation of natural resources). However, such claims are “subject always to the observance of regulations made by the [insert name of regulatory body here, for example UN] in accordance with the conditions laid down in the present Article.”
  • A fall-back approach has been implemented in many countries. Under such an aproach, a legal person can apply to exploit a resource in a limited area, and is given the exclusive right of usage of the resource over a given time. After the rights expire, the rigth of exploiting the resource falls back to the regulatory body.
  • The Moon Treaty, which specifically addresses the issue of private ownership on the Moon (through a clear prohibition), has never been ratified by a space-fairing nation, and is as a whole not of interest to the discussion.

So what does this tell us? The current utilization of the Moon is, for the time being, regulated by the Outer Space Treaty. This treaty is signed by all space faring nations, and as such any activity on the Moon is regulated by it. However, there is a pronounced need to address the issue of right of resource utilization and property claims. There will certainly be push from entities with interests in and on the Moon to establish a stable and fair legal framework for commercial exploitation in the near future. What such a framwork will regulate, and how it will be regulated is certainly an open question, I for my sake hope and believe that any future activity on the Moon will be for the benefit of mankind!

There is plenty of information about this topic available around on the internet. You can for example check out this recent discussion organized by NASA CoLab, or just Google it!

Selenian Boondocks also discuss the issue in their blog post.

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