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Can There Be Real Estate on the Moon? Exploring Lunar Ownership

An astrophysicist makes the case that it might be worthwhile to revisit the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 to safeguard the practice of science on the lunar surface. Background Image: NASA; istock/Feverpitched The idea of...

For Sale the Moon An astrophysicist makes the case that it might be worthwhile to revisit the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 to safeguard the practice of science on the lunar surface. Background Image: NASA; istock/Feverpitched

The idea of arguing over real estate on the moon may seem silly—like a con man trying to sell a tourist the Brooklyn Bridge. But in a new paper, co-author Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, makes the case for society to start thinking carefully about lunar real estate before a crisis is thrust upon us.

Peaks of Eternal Light: Scientific Goldmines

Most of the surface of the moon doesn't seem worth fighting over. One piece of lunar land looks as good as any other right now. But there are exceptions—the peaks of eternal light. In these locations, Elvis suggests that scientific research could potentially be seen, or even used, as a land grab.

“The peaks of eternal light are highland regions near the lunar poles that receive sunlight virtually all of the time,” wrote Elvis (the lead author) and his co-authors, philosopher Tony Milligan, and political scientist Alanna Krolikowski. Combined, the peaks comprise only about a single square kilometer of the lunar surface. These narrow crater rims are especially valuable for two purposes.

Solar Electricity and Radio Telescopes

First, they offer a constant source of solar electricity. This would enable any lunar facility, manned or unmanned, to reduce weight and launch expenses. Without a source of constant sunlight, expeditions would require massive batteries and thermal insulation, adding significant mass to take into space. The peaks of eternal light provide a real enabler for expeditions to utilize the water in the dark corners of nearby craters. It's comparable to how the availability of iron next to coal triggered the industrial revolution.

The second use for these peaks would be as sites for radio telescopes, allowing uninterrupted study of the sun and improving our ability to analyze solar data. A long wire could be stretched out along the crater rim, enhancing our understanding of the sun's behavior. China, among other players, has plans to exploit these peaks for scientific exploration and research in the coming years.

The Loophole: Claiming Lunar Land

So, what happens when someone lands on a peak? Can they claim ownership? According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which governs space law, outer space, including celestial bodies like the moon, cannot be subject to national appropriation. No planting flags and claiming territory. However, Article Twelve of the treaty appears to open a potential loophole that could be exploited by the peaks of eternal light.

The article states that stations, installations, equipment, and space vehicles on celestial bodies shall be open to representatives of other parties to the treaty on a basis of reciprocity. The peaks of eternal light, with their scientific significance and potential for solar power and radio telescopes, could be used to bypass the visitation requirements established in the treaty. By establishing a token radio observatory, a country could potentially claim ownership or influence over the territory.

Private Ownership in Space?

While the treaty applies to governments and prohibits national appropriation of lunar land, it does not explicitly prohibit private individuals, corporations, or non-profits from establishing non-sovereign ownership of real estate beyond Earth. This raises interesting questions about private property in space. Stephen Gorove argued in 1969 that under the Outer Space Treaty, private property beyond Earth is legally possible.

The key point is that international law generally allows anything that is not specifically prohibited. If countries have not explicitly agreed to deny their citizens the right to claim exclusive mining resources or peaks of eternal light for commercial purposes, private ownership of lunar land could be a possibility.

The Future of Lunar Real Estate

The question of real estate on the moon and other celestial bodies is still largely unexplored. Decisions need to be made before a potential crisis arises. Revisiting the Outer Space Treaty and considering the implications of private ownership and commercial exploitation of space resources are vital steps to ensure the sustainable and responsible exploration of the moon and beyond.

As an astrophysicist, Elvis does not take a definitive stance on lunar real estate's future. He simply urges us to engage in discussion and make informed decisions. “What I'm trying to do is make a discussion and make it more real, based on the non-uniformity of the resources,” says Elvis. “I hope there will be either a revised treaty or a revised version of this treaty that makes space worthwhile.”

Ultimately, the exploration and utilization of lunar real estate is a complex matter that requires careful consideration of the legal, scientific, and ethical aspects involved. As we set our sights on future lunar missions, the question remains: can there be real estate on the moon?

Original article by Martin Elvis, SFGate