Who Owns the Moon?
Earth's moon — Lawyers are debating the legal link between the two worlds.
Credit: NASA

Nearly 40 years after the U.S. flag was planted on the moon, a global rush to the final frontier has some pondering property rights out there.

India, Japan and China are now circling the moon with their respective spacecraft ? to be joined next year by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Then there's the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel some 1,640 feet (500 meters) and transmit video, images and data back to Earth.

The legal profession sees a brief in the making.

Extraterrestrial real estate

Laws tend to build on precedent. Since there's little precedent for lunar laws, some look to the sea for suggestions. That is, the use of ocean floor minerals beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. Such valuable resources are designated by some as a Common Heritage of mankind, not subject to national appropriation.

Could the Common Heritage concept work as the basis for a Moon Treaty?

Virgiliu Pop is a research specialist at the Romanian Space Agency. He has for years been keeping a legal eye on the area of space property rights, and his new book, "Who Owns the Moon? - Extraterrestrial Aspects of Land and Mineral Resources Ownership" (Springer, 2008) was published this month.

Pop has been delving into what has shaped the law of extraterrestrial real estate, and the norms which express this law. And in his view, the norms and rules regarding property rights in the celestial realm are rather limited, even failing to define basic concepts such as what is a celestial body.

Pop favors property rights over group hugs.

"Despite the noble ideals of equity and care for the have-nots, the Common Heritage paradigm of the Moon Treaty has more faults than merits," Pop told SPACE.com.

"A refutation of the Common Heritage principle does not mean, however, that the developing world will, or should, be left behind in the space era," he said. "China, India and Brazil are living proofs that a developing country can, through its own effort, join the spacefaring club. Instead of freeloading on the efforts of the older spacefarers, the have-nots should pool their meager financial resources into a common space agency or into regional ones, and proceed at exploiting the riches of outer space for themselves."

Frontier paradigm

The Frontier Paradigm, on the other hand, has proven its worth on our planet, Pop adds, and it most likely will do so in the extraterrestrial realms.

"Homesteading is likely to transform the lunar desert in the same manner as it transformed the 19th Century United States," he said. "Space is indeed a new frontier calling for individualism rather than collectivism, and its challenges need to be addressed with a legal regime favorable to property rights."

Much remains to be discussed and perhaps decided upon by various nations, of course, as space law evolves over time.

"Property rights are a useful engine and, in all likelihood, a precondition for pushing forward the development of the extraterrestrial realms," he said. "Securing property rights would be more beneficial to humankind, compared to the alternative of keeping the extraterrestrial realms undeveloped."

Sphere of the concrete

Pop feels that the new trends in the privatization of space endeavors and the planned return of humans to the moon will shift the subject of property rights in outer space "from the field of Byzantine discussions into the sphere of the concrete."

Beyond the moon, Pop also ponders in his book whether asteroids and comets are immovable land-like territorial extensions that cannot be legally appropriated. Or, are they "floating movable goods," capable of being captured and reduced into private ownership?

Pop offers up a suggested rallying cry for spacefarers: "Countries of the world unite ? you have nothing to lose but the chains of gravity?the skies are open."

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.