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Who owns the moon? Dispute over the territory of our satellite

The question of who owns the moon has been a topic of interest for many years. According to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty,

By Ground Report
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Who owns the moon? Dispute over the territory of our satellite

The question of who owns the moon has been a topic of interest for many years. According to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, no nation can claim sovereignty over the moon or make it its territory. This means that even though national flags may be planted on the lunar surface, no nation can ‘own’ the moon. As of 2019, 109 nations are bound by the Treaty, and another 23 have signed the agreement but have yet to be officially recognized.

Who owns the moon?

In the race to explore outer space, one question has remained a constant source of debate: “Who owns the moon?” The answer, according to international law, is no one.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a pivotal piece of legislation in space law, clearly states that no nation can claim sovereignty over the moon or consider it as part of their territory. This means that despite the presence of national flags on the lunar surface - most notably the U.S. flag planted by Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission - these do not signify the establishment of any national colonies or ownership.

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Credit: NASA.

As of 2019, the Outer Space Treaty binds 109 nations, with an additional 23 having signed the agreement but awaiting official recognition. The treaty represents a global consensus to keep space exploration peaceful and prevent any single entity from monopolizing celestial bodies.

Moon Ownership: A Global Contention

Bill Nelson, the current leader of NASA, said in an interview this year, "We want to prevent China from claiming the water as their own." He specifically referred to the South Pole of the Moon, a territory on our satellite that has suddenly become highly coveted. Not only do China and the US want to reach it, but also Russia and India. For example, they are already speeding up their plans to reach there in the coming years. But why?

Yes, the water. Scientists from the Chinese National Academy of Sciences have estimated that the south pole of the Moon might hold about 270 billion tons of frozen water. These deposits could produce hydrogen and oxygen, possible ingredients for rocket fuel. However, the lunar soil also contains other minerals like scandium, yttrium, and lanthanide. Manufacturing of computers, smartphones, and other technological devices involves the use of these three metals.

In other words, they envision a potential lunar mine. How might China and the US reach an agreement? Nelson drew a comparison between China's arrival at the south pole of the Moon and the dispute over the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in Asia that has been a source of contention among six nations for years. The disputants include China, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

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A NASA illustration of a future lunar camp. Credit: NASA

"International waters encompassed this territory, and China arrived to claim them for itself. They initiated the construction of landing strips,” said Nelson. He asserted: "We aim to prevent this kind of action." But can China assert sovereignty over any part of the Moon? Can the US achieve it? To sum up: who holds ownership over the Moon?"

NASA's plans to clarify who owns the Moon

Among all the ongoing Moon travel plans, the US seems to be at the most advanced stage. NASA aims to dispatch a team of astronauts on the Artemis mission by the end of 2025, marking the first human touch on lunar soil in over 50 years.

Despite China's usual secrecy, it has expressed its aspiration to land on the Moon by around 2030, though NASA has shared concerns that it might happen earlier. Russia has proposed an indefinite date within the next decade, while India has set their sights to achieve their goal by 2040.

NASA's mission preparations do not solely revolve around technology. Besides developing equipment and vehicles, the US agency also promotes what it calls the Artemis Accords. This is an agreement that the US advocates globally to lay down fundamental principles for exploration on the Moon. Additionally, they discuss the potential occurrences on Mars, comets, and asteroids.

In 2020, the initiative started. NASA has been conducting diplomatic efforts since then to get as many countries as possible to sign the agreement. Nelson, the agency's leader, commonly visits countries to express his support. This month, Bulgaria became the 32nd nation to sign the document. Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Japan, Brazil, Germany have already joined the list. However, among other space powers, only India has joined the US plan.

All signatory countries must respect the "safety zones" that the Artemis Accords establish to prevent conflicts. The Artemis Accords also stipulate that space exploration must exclusively serve peaceful purposes and comply with international law. Additionally, the Artemis accords ensure "safe and sustainable resource extraction".

Controversies over Artemis Accords

"Common sense principles," said the leader of NASA. "They ensure peace, collaboration, and unified systems. In case an astronaut needs assistance, they ensure the ships have compatible docking systems." Nelson, who was interviewed last May, also stressed the importance of putting competition aside. "It also rules out the possibility of someone reaching the Moon, claiming territory, and preventing others from entering. Here, I am referring to China," added Nelson.

However, the Artemis Accords do not clearly define all points. Some of these points can even create controversy. The document mentions security zones, describing them as surfaces reserved for a specific activity of some space actors. It specifies that these zones will be temporary and will cease to exist once the activity concludes, but it does not provide further information. Some experts warn that the lack of definition and clear purpose could result in generally undefined interpretations, potentially violating the principle of non-appropriation of lunar territory.

Alejandro Q. Gilbert of the Colorado School of Mines notes in an analysis published in March in the Journal of Space Safety Engineering that a particular actor's point of view can describe safety zones in various ways. He states that the most controversial areas presumably relate to resource extraction. He suggests that while buffer zones might suffice for small-scale resource activity in the short term, future large-scale space mining will likely necessitate a broader multilateral governance framework.

Other analysts argue that these security zones could limit moon access to countries not included in the Artemis Accords. They argue that this could make the US — the country that licenses most of the world's space companies — “the de facto guardian of the Moon, asteroids and other celestial bodies,” according to Aaron Boley and Michael Byers from the University of British Columbia, who stated this in Science.

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