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Who owns the moon?

Posted July 8

Apollo 16 astronaut John Young salutes the U.S. flag at the Descartes landing site. (Photo credit: NASA)

During a recent visit with the Wings of Carolina Flying Club, members had a lot of really good questions. One in particular deserves a more complete answer: “who owns Mars or the moon?”

There may be six fading American flags on the lunar surface, but the United States does not own any part of the moon. Even NASA’s 2011 recommendations on protecting those sites (no closer than 2km please) are unenforceable. No one owns the moon, Mars or any planet or its moons.

The question of ownership first came up as the United States and Soviet Union raced to put boots on the moon. The United Nations responded with The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 governing “activities of
states in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies.” One hundred ninety-three U.N. member states have ratified the treaty, but not everyone agrees with it.

In 1980, American Dennis Hope claimed ownership of the moon and Mars through a loophole he believes he discovered. Hope claims the treaty applies only to governments not individuals. After the U.N. did not respond to his letter requesting a legal clarification, he began selling deeds.

Hope has made millions selling the moon, Mars or Venus from his “Moon Estates” an acre at a time. For $28.75 plus tax, customers get a personalized certificate. He also claims ownership of Mercury, and Jupiter’s moon Io. This left me wondering what Hope has against Jupiter’s other large and similarly icy moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. While none would make good vacation spots, each has its
benefits.

Io is dotted with hundreds of active volcanoes and its icy sulfur surface probably smells a bit like rotten eggs, a difficult sell in a real estate brochure. However, the thin but oxygen rich atmosphere of Europa along with the recent discovery of minerals associated with organic life excites astrobiologists searching for life outside of Earth.

Mercury sized Callisto's long dead 4 billion year old surface might ease buyers fears of earthquakes, sinkholes or other land destroying disasters. Calisto is the most heavily cratered object in the solar system so finding a good spot will be more of a challenge. Ganymede is even bigger than Mercury and has a liquid iron core giving it an Earth-like magnetosphere that might provide protection from solar flares. Unfortunately it’s not enough to overcome Jupiter’s massive magnetic field. NASA’s Juno mission which will begin studies of Jupiter in July 2016 had to be heavily hardened to survive that environment.

Tanja Masson-Zwaan, president of the International Institute of Space Law, disagrees with Hope and others who have made such claims She dismisses the loopholes saying, “Individuals should live by the laws of that state, and cannot do things that the state is not allowed to do."

The National Academies, which advises NASA, Congress and others on science, engineering, and medicine, recently endorsed Mars as the next goal for human spaceflight. Whatever flag gets planted there, it will be a symbol of the accomplishment, not annexation.


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

6 Comments

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  • garyspear Jul 9, 12:00 p.m.

    Just hope no one shows up here and claims we are squatters.

  • saturn5 Jul 8, 12:55 p.m.

    The moon and planets belong to whoever holds and defends them, just like any piece of land on earth. Treaties are routinely brokered and broken on earth. Space is no different.

  • Six String Jul 8, 12:14 p.m.

    The Klingons...

    — Posted by -Va-

    No, no... it's the Ferengis.

  • PowderedToastMan Jul 8, 11:51 a.m.

    If you paid Hope any money, you're not too bright.

  • umop apisdn Jul 8, 11:22 a.m.

    It's not the US, if it was illegals would already be showing up there looking for handouts...er, I mean amnesty.

  • -Va- Jul 8, 9:57 a.m.

    The Klingons...