Who owns the moon?

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A digital rendering of an astronaut walking on the moon. (Image credit: fStop Images - Caspar Benson)

Over the barren, unsettlingly motionless surface of the moon, metal cable is used to suspend the flags of two nations. One is China's red flag, while the other is the stars and stripes of the United States. However, any official from these nations will tell you that these flags in no way indicate any kind of property claim. They resemble alien graffiti more than anything else.

But what qualifies as a property claim if raising a flag on the moon? Can anybody genuinely own the moon when it comes down to it?

Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in October 1957, heralded the beginning of an entirely new era. Some of the options were scientific, while others were authorized by law. The Outer Space Treaty (OST), the first international law specifically addressing space exploration, was developed over the course of the next ten years by the worldwide community.

Despite not having legal force, this pact continues to be the most significant body of space law. According to Michelle Hanlon, a space law specialist at the University of Mississippi School of Law, "It's not a code of behavior." "It's simply principles and rules,"

Despite its lack of enforcement, the OST is unambiguous when it comes to nations taking up space. Article 2 of the agreement expressly prohibits any nation from asserting sovereignty over any celestial body or portion of space. Hanlon told Live Science that "a state cannot assert sovereignty on the moon, period."

Hanlon said that things get more complicated when it comes to constructing anything like bases and dwellings on lunar surface. They are territory in a different sense, correct?

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An Apollo 17 astronaut stands on the lunar surface with the United States flag in the background. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

People have a basic right to possess property, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(opens in new tab), which is cited in Article 3 of the OST. This implies that anybody might theoretically construct a home on the moon and claim ownership of it. And a number of individuals have claimed ownership of portions of the moon, including Robert R. Coles, the former director of the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium in New York City, who tried to sell off acres of the moon for $1 each in 1955, according to the New York Times.

The OST's Article 12 has a clause that may prevent such an endeavor, nevertheless. It specifies that every party must be able to use any installation on another celestial planet. Hanlon said that it would have to serve as a public area. By mandating that any commercial or private party functioning in space be considered a part of its country of origin rather than an independent entity, the Moon Treaty of 1979 would have helped reconcile Article 2 with Article 12. However, since the United States, China, and Russia have not yet ratified this pact, it is usually seen as powerless. Space lawyers like Hanlon will have to work hard to reconcile Article 2 with Article 12 when missions like NASA's Artemis Program and China and Russia's joint moon base project get underway.

More recently, NASA made an effort to close certain legal loopholes via the Artemis Accords(opens in new tab), a global pact intended to facilitate future exploration. The agreements, which build on the Outer Space Treaty, set out a number of non-binding guidelines for activities on a number of celestial planets, including the moon. One of its clauses recognizes certain lunar areas as protected outer space heritage, including Neil Armstrong's footprints and the landing site for the Russian Luna spacecraft.

However, the treaties also permit the extraction and exploitation of alien resources, something not all nations are in favor of. Although 21 nations have signed the agreements so far, several big actors, such as Russia, have rejected because they believe this language gives American commercial interests an unfair edge, according to Science (opens in new tab). Additionally, some academics have noted that physically extracting soil from the moon has an eerie resemblance to owning property.

Without officially claiming property on the moon, there are various ways to do it. For instance, if the study team bans other individuals from getting too near to their equipment, deploying scientific tools like rovers or permanent seismometers might possibly evolve into de facto land claims. In the next several decades, all of these will undoubtedly become contentious legal issues.

In many respects, this is not an urgent problem, according to Hanlon. And it is in many ways. Nevertheless, she said, "we have to be very, really cautious about how we continue appropriately."

Also Read: If there is phosphine on Venus, there isn't much.

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