A Tricky Way to Claim Land on the Moon

The race to extract resources in space is heating up—with few laws in place to contain the chaos.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

When you look up at the moon, you might be gob-smacked by its beauty, its wrinkled features, the way its silvery glow reflects off rooftops. You might be annoyed by the way it dominates the night sky. Or, if you’re like me, you might enjoy the moon as a quiet companion to your restless nocturnal mind.

When Naveen Jain looks at the moon, he thinks about money. Paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, he says we choose to go to the moon, “not because it is easy, but because it is great business.”

Last week, his company, Moon Express, became the first private entity to win federal permission to leave Earth orbit and shoot for the moon, something he hopes to do as early as next year.

“There are a tremendous amount of resources available on the moon, and beyond the moon, in space,” he says. “We fight over land, we fight over water, we fight over energy. And we never look up and say, ‘Holy cow, with the abundance of land, energy, water up there, what are we fighting about?’”

Though most of us picture the moon as a gray expanse of emptiness—“magnificent desolation,” as Buzz Aldrin called it—the past decade has brought a new moon into relief. The lunar surface is rich in rare material like helium-3, an isotope that could be used in nuclear fusion reactors. It is abundant with water, mostly frozen in deep craters whose surfaces have not seen the sun in billions of years. Those craters are ringed by thin Peaks of Eternal Light that almost always see the sun, thanks to the moon’s slight tilt. The mountaintops would be a convenient location to set up a continuously running solar power plant. Jain says the first moon miners could reap untold fortunes from these and other resources.

Amid his prospecting plans, he does leave some room for moon romanticism, envisioning moon rocks replacing diamonds as lovers’ favorite crucible-cooked stones. He dreams of honeymoons on the actual moon.

Technical and financial challenges aside, these dreams run up against the reality of international relations. There is no governing body on the moon, no arbiter of property disputes. The Outer Space Treaty, ratified in 1967 at the height of the Cold War, is the only official Earth document that discusses moon use. In addressing future moon missions, it asks regulatory bodies from countries where public or private rockets would launch to ensure the missions’ safety. That’s why Moon Express received a permit last week, from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Outer Space Treaty bars any nation or corporation from owning property on a celestial body, “by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” But it also discusses the “use” of those bodies. In this way, the treaty simultaneously, and somewhat awkwardly, reflects the closely held principles of both Soviet Russia and capitalist America: It regards celestial objects as common property, but it makes room for exploiting and using their resources.

Martin Elvis, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says this balancing act allows room for a loophole. Elvis recently wrote a scientific paper that plays out a moon-land grab scenario under the treaty.

Imagine you’re a well-funded entity like Moon Express. You could launch a small rover—like China's Jade Rabbit, which just ceased operations—to set up a research station at one of the moon’s more resource-rich areas, probably the poles. The rover would set down a copper wire, trundle a few meters away and unspool more wire. This length of wire is now a low-frequency radio antenna. Think of the rabbit-ear dipole antenna on an ancient TV set, only instead of watching the Olympics you could use it to observe the sun. This is something solar physicists would actually like to do, because Earth’s atmosphere bars them from making low-frequency observations from here.

Under the Outer Space Treaty, you would have to allow other countries and entities to inspect your new solar observatory. But the treaty also says that inspections cannot get in the way of your normal operations, and any inspection would likely interfere with your radio observations. So for practical purposes, nobody else can ever come to your mountaintop. You have become the de facto owner of that piece of lunar real estate, Elvis says.

“You see the sneakiness that comes in from being an astronomer and having ideas like this,” he says. “I would say in a few years there will be landers at those sites on the moon, and it could become a critical issue. “

The prospect of a new treaty seems unlikely, so Elvis and his coauthors suggest anyone who wants to use the moon would have to come up with mutually agreeable rules, rights and responsibilities.

“We don’t come up with any definitive answers. We just want to bring to light that this is surprisingly urgent problem,” Elvis says.

The moon isn’t the only place where this urgency presents itself. On Tuesday, an asteroid-mining company called Deep Space Industries announced plans to fly the first commercial mining mission into interplanetary space. The company plans to launch a trial run next year, called Prospector-X, and then by the end of the decade, launch a ship called Prospector-1 to rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid.

Like Jain, DSI’s managers aim to learn how to “live off the land” in space, and turn a handsome profit in the process. These space miners would set their sights on the most promising asteroid targets, just as they would with the moon. As Elvis points out, that has potential for problems.

“It’s like prospecting the Rocky Mountain in the 1850s. You don’t just go up to a random mountain and start digging. You go up to the ones that are most promising,” he says. “Whenever you get a rare and valuable item, it produces conflict.”

Who would mediate these conflicts, and who would determine the remedies or penalties? It’s unclear, but adjudication would likely play out on Earth, at least at first. Soon, our millennia-old parochial disputes over land and borders could, like our hopes and dreams, make their way to the final frontier.