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Chandrayaan-2 May be India’s Moonwalk Into History, But Who Actually Owns Space?

Chandrayaan-2 May be India’s Moonwalk Into History, But Who Actually Owns Space?

While the resemblance of the moon’s crater-pocked surface to some of India’s busiest roads has already been pointed out by creative citizens, what would it take to own a piece of the moon, or any extraterrestrial body? And is it even possible? Well, there is Hope.

Even in these times marked by a floundering economy, property prices in India’s top cities such as Delhi and Mumbai are sky-high. Astronomical, some might say. Is it then better to set one’s sights a little further out? No, not Noida. Not Thane. And not Kashmir.

Any way you look at it, Chandrayaan-2 is a milestone in space exploration (the orbiter will keep circling the moon). So much so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to take time out of his normally packed schedule to bask in some lunar glory. Over past months, the spacecraft has sent back a burst of shots of the lunar landscape, generating abundant curiosity. While the resemblance of the crater-pocked topography to some of India’s busiest roads has already been pointed out by creative citizens, a question that arises out of this is what would it take to own a piece of the moon? And is it even possible?

Well, there is hope. Or, to be more specific, Dennis M Hope. In 1980, the United States entrepreneur wrote a letter to the United Nations, declaring himself the owner of the moon. The UN did not respond, so Hope and his company, Lunar Embassy, just started selling the land.

Hope and his clients now ‘own’ all the planetary bodies in the solar system. Over the years, he has sold thousands of parcels of moon real estate to customers, allegedly including to former US presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, as well as to dozens of big corporations, such as the Hilton and Marriott hotel chains.

“In 2001, I had 163,000 emails from different customers around the world that wanted to know how on Earth we were ever going to protect the properties that the Lunar Embassy was selling,” Hope told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “And after due consideration, the only answer we could come up with was that we needed to form a democratic republic government. So we created the Galactic Government.”

Hope’s claims and ideas may sound outlandish (several experts have termed them “fraudulent”), but he and other innovative extraterrestrial real estate mavens – for instance, Chilean lawyer Jenaro Gajardo Vera claimed ownership of the moon in 1953, and Martin Juergens from Germany has said that the moon has belonged to his family since July 15, 1756, when the Prussian king Frederick the Great presented it to his ancestors – say they found a number of loopholes in existing ‘celestial laws’.

As an article in the science and astronomy news website Space explains in detail, while there are treaties that have been voluntarily signed by many nations, technological advances mean that private companies, like technology entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, can take part in space exploration, and these entities may not be covered under some existing accords.

The United Nations and the Outer Space Treaty

The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was set up by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 1959 “to govern the exploration and use of space for the benefit of all humanity: for peace, security and development”.

As of last year, it has 92 members, including major space-faring nations such as the United States (NASA), Russia (Roscosmos), Japan, China, Canada, Brazil, Australia, the member states of the European Space Agency, and India as well.

The United Nations describes this committee as the “focal point” where international entities negotiate how to use space peacefully. COPUOUS’s duties include exchanging information about space, keeping tabs on what government and nongovernmental organisations do in space, and promoting international cooperation. COPUOUS also formed two subcommittees in 1962 to deal with legal issues, and scientific and technical developments; secretariat services are provided by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

COPUOUS is the force behind five treaties and five principles that govern much of space exploration. The central one is the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, or simply the Outer Space Treaty. It was ratified in 1967, largely based on a set of legal principles the general assembly accepted in 1962.

The treaty has several major points to it. Some of the key ones are:

- Space is free for all nations to explore, and sovereign claims cannot be made.

- Space activities must be for the benefit of all nations and humans. (So, nobody owns the moon.)

- Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are not allowed in Earth orbit, on celestial bodies or in other outer-space locations. (In other words, peace is the only acceptable use of outer-space locations).

- Individual nations (states) are responsible for any damage their space objects cause. Individual nations are also responsible for all governmental and nongovernmental activities conducted by their citizens. These states must also "avoid harmful contamination" due to space activities.

To support the Outer Space Treaty, four other treaties were put into place in the 1960s and 1970s to support peaceful space exploration. These treaties (referred to below by their nicknames) are:

- The Rescue Agreement (1968), formed to give astronauts assistance during an unintended landing or when they are facing an emergency. States are told they "shall immediately take all possible steps to rescue them and render them all necessary assistance".

- The Liability Convention (1972) outlines considerations if a space object causes damage or loss to human life. Its first article says, “A launching state shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the earth or to aircraft flight.”

- The Registration Convention (1975), drawn up to help nations keep track of all objects launched into outer space. This United Nations registry is important for matters such as avoiding space debris.

- The Moon Agreement (1979), which gives more detail on the Outer Space Treaty for property rights and usage of the moon and other celestial bodies in the solar system (except for objects that naturally enter the Earth from these bodies, namely, meteorites). This treaty, however, has only been signed by 16 nations, all of which are minor players in space exploration.

COPUOUS has also created five sets of principles to support these treaties:

- The Declaration of Legal Principles (1963), from which the Outer Space Treaty was created in 1967, lays down guiding principles, including the idea that space exploration is for the benefit of all humans.

- The Broadcasting Principles (1982) has to do with television broadcast signals. These principles include the idea of noninterference with other countries’ signals, the provision of information to help with knowledge exchange, and the promotion of educational and social development (particularly in developing nations).

- The Remote Sensing Principles (1986) concerns the use of electromagnetic waves to collect data on Earth's natural resources. Remote-sensing activities are supposed to be for all countries' benefit and should be carried out in the spirit of international cooperation.

- The Nuclear Power Sources Principles (1992) concerns how to protect humans and other species from radiation if a launch goes awry, or a spacecraft flying by Earth accidently crashes to the surface. It's common for spacecraft exploring the outer solar system to use nuclear power sources for energy, since solar power is so weak out there.

- The Benefits Declaration (1996) says that space exploration shall be carried out for the benefit of all states. This was created two years before the International Space Station — an effort of 15 nations — launched its first two modules into space.

Why some are digging the idea of owning space real estate

Space contains valuable resources, points out an article in The New Atlantis. These provide a persuasive motive for entrepreneurs, investors, and governments to pursue space exploration and settlement. Asteroids are known to be rich in valuable elements like neodymium, scandium, yttrium, iridium, platinum, and palladium, most of which are rare on Earth. Because of the high price that these minerals command, harvesting them from space could possibly justify even very costly mining expeditions.

Mankind is fast making giant leaps in space exploration: boldly going where no one had gone before. But while there is a lot of space out there, our record with Earth and its resources has not exactly been stellar. So, nations must put their heads together to find responsible ways and reasonable rules to carry on with this journey into the unknown. It doesn’t require a rocket scientist to appreciate the gravity of the matter.