Can someone own the moon?

«Buy land,» the old saying goes. «They’re not making it anymore.» But that’s not entirely true. Across the cosmos, the accretion disks of young suns churn out new land all the time — if you can wait a few billion years for it to finish baking.

The ether abounds with established acreage, too. As of February 2012, NASA’s planetary property birddog, the Kepler spacecraft, had found 2,326 planetary candidates (61 confirmed), one of them nestled in its star’s habitable zone [source: NASA]. You know what they say in real estate: location, location, location.

Closer to home, Mars offers more than 55.7 million square miles (144.3 million square kilometers) of prime desert property, and Venus balloons to roughly Earth size, but without all of those pesky oceans [source: NASA]. Granted, its runaway greenhouse effect and lead-melting surface temperatures might be a bit blistering for non-Floridians, but at least there are no mosquitoes.

All kidding aside, a space land rush is the most likely thing in the world (or, rather, out of it). As private companies gaze spaceward with dollar signs in their eyes, and as ever more countries pay the cosmic club’s hefty dues, the time to settle questions of space ownership, use and management might arrive sooner than we expect.

Can someone own the moon? Can you stake a claim to any part of a planet, asteroid or other celestial body, or exploit its resources for profit?

The short answer is no. International law and treaties governing space (that’s right — we actually have space treaties) consider celestial objects the «common heritage of mankind.» They argue that space should benefit everyone, and that all peoples should share free access to celestial bodies. Article II of the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (aka the Outer Space Treaty), settles the issue clearly:

Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
This prohibition extends to private parties, although not everyone shares this reading (more on this later) [sources: United Nations; Jakhu and Buzdugan]. It also encompasses the moon’s subsurface, orbital space and approach trajectories — so no building lunar toll roads.

The documents also require that the moon be used in peace. All parties must preserve it for future generations, keep their activities transparent, avoid getting in each other’s way, warn each other about hazards (such as gun-toting space macaques), offer refuge and aid as needed, and report any resource they might stumble across.

As we’ll see, such legal realities haven’t stopped people from laying claim to the moon, or from selling it off one acre at a time.

It’s Only a Paper Moon
There was a time when claiming to be the King of the Moon would have landed you in the booby hatch and selling lunar property would have gotten you a one-way ticket to jail. Yet, today, a quick Internet search will turn up half a dozen companies willing to peddle you a lunar deed.

Half of those links will land you on a page by or about Dennis Hope, an American impresario who claims legal ownership of the moon and most of the rest of the solar system. The self-proclaimed Head Cheese argues that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, in its haste to squash any attempt to claim the moon for king or country, left the door ajar for private title. In 1980, he announced his claim to the United States, the Soviet government and the United Nations; conveniently, he took their lack of reply as tacit consent and has been hawking lunar land ever since [source: CNN].

To reassure his clientele of the security of their property rights, Hope established a galactic government, complete with a ratified constitution, a congress, a unit of currency, a patent office, as well as passports and Internet domain names for sale (.moon, anyone?).

Hope is not alone in his celestial claims. Martin Juergens of Germany asserts that his family has owned the moon since Prussian monarch Frederick the Great bequeathed it to them in the 18th century. So far, no paperwork has come to light supporting Mr. Juergens’s claim [source: CNN].

Along similar lines, in 1997, three men from Yemen sued NASA for invading Mars with its Pathfinder spacecraft and Sojourner rover. The men alleged that their ancestors had held title to the red planet for 3,000 years [source: CNN].

Of course, these paltry planets are chickenfeed compared to the realm snatched up by Chicago publicity man James T. Mangan. On Dec. 20, 1948, Mangan declared his own country, the Nation of Celestial Space, whose territory encompassed — you guessed it — space. Then (this is our favorite part of the story) the self-proclaimed First Representative waited nine minutes for Earth to clear out of the space it then occupied, and annexed that volume as well.

Mangan planned to sell Earth-sized chunks of space at $1 apiece (around $10-$15 in 2012 money). For that price, buyers would become participants (not citizens) of an «intellectual tyranny,» with limited «suggestion rights or thinking rights,» and not much else [source: Science Illustrated].

In the end, claims to outer space amount to novelties or scams that the international community will go on ignoring. Unless a more formal international recognition comes about, we wouldn’t trust those deeds as far as we could throw them — even under the moon’s weaker gravity.

Why? As we’ll see, there’s probably not as much wiggle-room in space law as Mr. Hope and his type like to think.

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