In 1969, the idea of building a permanent settlement on the moon might have seemed impossible.
When Neil Armstrong first planted the American flag on the moon, it might have looked a lot like he was staking the US’s claim.
But can anybody really own the moon, or was Armstrong’s flag planting no more legally significant than an act of cosmic littering?
Speaking to MailOnline, experts have revealed why ‘buying’ a plot of land on the moon might not be all that it seems.
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In 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (pictured) planted the American flag on the moon’s surface. But, even though this looked a lot like staking a claim to our lunar satellite, the law of space disagrees
The simple answer, according to professor of space law Christopher Newman of Northumbria University, is nobody.
‘No country can claim ownership of the moon,’ Professor Newman told MailOnline.
The moon and other celestial bodies are governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST).
Signed two years before America would land on the moon, these laws were signed as a critical juncture of the space race.
Professor Newman explains: ‘It was by no means clear who was going to win the race to the moon at that time.
‘So this was very much intended to stop these two great superpowers [US and Russia] taking competition into outer space and to make sure that no one had the upper hand.’
While short by standards of international treaties at only 17 articles, the OST lays out the principle that there can be no ‘appropriation’ of the moon or other celestial bodies.
Professor Newman said: ‘Effectively what that means is that you can’t claim sovereignty over it, you can’t claim part ownership of it and, crucially, you can’t enforce an individual’s claim of ownership.’
On Earth, if you want to stake a claim to a certain piece of property, then this would require an appeal to the court of that country.
What the OST essentially declares is that there is no court to go to which would enforce a claim to own part of the moon.
Another important principle laid down in the OST is that states have a right to explore and study space.
Since space exploration cannot be restricted, nobody could legally fence off a part of the moon and keep others out as if it were their own property.
But, naturally, there are some important caveats.
The United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space created the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 to prevent Russia and America from taking their conflict into space and ensure that no one had the upper hand
States have a right to travel in space for exploration and to use celestial bodies in any way that doesn’t violate the Outer Space Treaty. They also retain ownership and responsibility of anything that gets sent to space, meaning that the gear left begind by Apollo 11 (pictured) still belongs to the USA
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First is that states retain ownership of whatever they send into space.
This means that, although people can’t own the moon, they do retain legal rights and responsibilities for anything they can get to the moon.
All of the 400,000 lbs of landers, probes, and moon buggies that have been abandoned on the moon still belong to the nation which sent them there.
In theory, if a state were to build a permanent settlement on the moon this could mean that whatever they built would be their property.
If being able to build a permanent structure feels a lot like ownership, then the issue only becomes more complicated when factoring in the moon’s resources.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory estimates that the moon might contain hundreds of billions of dollars of untapped resources waiting beneath the surface.
Crucially, these resources include the rare Earth metals needed to keep building advanced electronics.
But Professor Newman says that what can be legally done about these resources is the subject of a big debate in the space law community.
On one hand, he says anti-extraction advocates point out that putting a mine on the moon seems like ‘a pretty permanent state of affairs.’
For some celestial bodies like asteroids, which are covered by the treaty, the only way to get at their resources would be to destroy them.
Under the Outer Space Treaty, states retain responsibility and ownership of anything they have put on the moon. As this graphic shows the five nations to have visited the moon have already left a number of landing sites over which they have legal responsibility
Only five countries have ever landed anything on the moon to which these laws could apply to. The most recent was Japan’s SLIM lander which touched down on the lunar surface this month
In the future, humans could begin to build permanent lunar settlements which would have a right to use the moon’s resources to sustain themselves as this artist’s impression demonstrates
From this perspective, mining seems an awful lot like the kind of appropriation explicitly forbidden by the OST.
However, there are others who argue that mining celestial bodies should be fine under the existing treaty.
Professor Newman explains: ‘The other side of the debate says “hang on a second, we don’t want to own the moon, we just want to use the moon and the minerals that are there”.’
Since states have the free right to use celestial bodies, advocates say that this should extend to ‘using’ the minerals they find there.
Currently, any mining on the moon or in space would most likely be limited to ‘in-situ resource utilization’.
This means that a space base might use lunar rock as a building material or harvest ice to create oxygen, but not mine minerals for commercial use.
Commercial mining on the moon, were it ever to become profitable, would probably be a private undertaking.
The OST is often believed to only apply to states, leading to a mistaken conclusion that private individuals can claim parts of the moon for themselves.
Dennis Hope, a former car salesperson, claimed to have discovered just this loophole when he declared himself the moon’s legal owner.
This chart shows possible sites for mining on the moon’s South Pole. Locations of water are shown in blue while key locations for helium and rare earth metals are numbered
Of course, this is not how ownership of the moon works and the reason is clearly contained within the articles of the OST.
First, the treaty means that there is no possible court which could enforce Mr Hope’s claim of ownership.
Furthermore, Article Six of the Outer Space Treaty says that states are responsible for all national space activities whether they are conducting themselves or not.
That means, if an American wants to go to the moon and use it for anything more than printing deeds they will need the approval of the FCC to do so.
The same goes for any other country where private companies will need approval from their respective space agency before carrying out any launch.
Since states are responsible for private enterprises launched from their borders, Professor Newman says that it is also states that will decide whether private companies can mine the moon.
Dennis Hope (pictured), a former car salesperson, claimed that he had found a loophole in the OST and declared himself owner of the moon. It is widely agreed that his claims are not valid
He says: ‘The question then becomes to what extent states are going to promote their private industries and to what extent they’re going to try and protect the space environment.
‘Those two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive but we know that states are going to concentrate more on the commercial benefits and that’s what we’re seeing at the minute.’
In 2015 the US passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which means that corporations can claim rights to extract whatever resources they find in space.
This means that US companies are free to extract, transport, and trade materials mined in space.
This essentially makes space law a rule of finders keepers in which the first to start mining will be able to lay claim to the resources they find.
The bigger issue is that if one state is willing to approve moon mining projects and others aren’t, there is nothing to stop companies relocating to a more permissive state.
Professor Newman says there is a risk this could create a race to the bottom for states to have the most permissive legislation to lure in businesses.
But where does this leave the question of who actually owns the moon?
Its rules laid down in the Outer Space Treaty are clear: no state can make a territorial claim on the moon.
However, the treaty was written over 50 years ago at a time when private companies travelling to the moon, let alone setting up a mining operation, was completely unthinkable.
Due to the law’s open-ended approach to the question of what counts as ‘use’, the distant future might see states and corporations undertaking activity which looks quite a lot like owning parts of the moon.
Some people have even suggested that it is now time to tear up the OST and build some more regulation fit for the present day.
Japan’s SLIM lander may have made it to the moon but landed on its nose. This demonstrates just how difficult and expensive it will be to establish a permanent base on the moon
But whether you think carving up and selling parts of the moon really counts as ownership or not, Professor Newman cautions against jumping to conclusions.
As recent failed landing attempts have shown, getting to the moon is still fiendishly difficult and it will likely be a long time yet before we start to see anything resembling permanent settlements on the lunar surface.
Professor Newman says: ‘Watch the technology because it’s never as certain as we think it is.
‘We are right at the edge of technology here, it will not be easy to establish human settlements and it will also not be easy to regulate those settlements without seeing what they look like.’
The Outer Space Treaty is one of the most widely agreed upon international treaties.
With 109 nations already bound to its articles and 23 signed pending official recognition it is essentially the one thing most states can agree on about space.
However there have been some signs of fraying commitment as NASA boss Bill Nelson warned that China might try and claim lunar territory for itself.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson says he and others within the scientific agency are growing increasingly concerned over what China plans to do when they make it to the moon
Mr Nelson said that China might attempt to take control or resource rich areas of the moon before America or other nations can get to them.
Ultimately he warns that other nations might end up being banned from accessing certain parts of the moon, in clear violation of the OST.
NASA itself has also been raising some hackles by creating the Artemis Accords, a new set of legal guidelines, which includes the right to create ‘safety zones’.
These would be zones around lunar projects that other states should commit to avoiding.
However, Professor Newman points out that creating a zone that no one else can enter does seem to be a similar concept to claiming territory.
But Professor Newman does remain positive about the possibility of future collaboration, pointing to Russia and America’s ongoing cooperation on the ISS.
He adds: ‘Space is one of those areas where there is still cooperation and collaboration between adversaries.
‘So, let’s look at how these bases develop and leave the Outer Space Treaty alone because it’s the one international agreement we actually have.’