International law can answer a lot of odd questions. Today’s question is about the Moon: who owns it? The answer to this depends on who you ask.

If you ask the United Nations [UN], they will say no one can own it. The UN also has an established branch called the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (if that isn’t code for Men In Black, I don’t know what is).  There are in existence five ratified treaties covering different aspects of outer-space exploration. These treaties cover a range of space-related issues, from registration of objects launched into space, to liability if a space object causes damage to another country’s equipment or personnel. Some law schools even offer courses on space law. Imagine introducing yourself as “Space Lawyer” at your high school reunion.

The treaty relevant to our question is the “Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”, or “The Moon Agreement”. Seventeen states are party, including Australia.

The Moon Treaty covers several aspects of outer space exploration. It forbids any state from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies, including the moon. It bans the altering of the moon’s environment and stipulates states must take measures to prevent contamination. The treaty also establishes that all states have equal right to conduct scientific research on the moon.

The problem is, the United States [US], Russia and China are not party to the treaty. Enough countries have ratified the Moon Treaty so it has entered into force: it is now international law for those countries. The treaty is not currently binding to the nations who are not party to it. However, the longer it stands, the more likely it is to set a standard for the wider international community as custom law.

Reluctance to sign stems from Article 11 of the Moon Treaty, which states: “The Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind and the harvesting of those resources is forbidden except through an international regime established to govern the exploitation of such resources when it becomes feasible to do so.”

In the US, companies Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are already established exclusively for outer-space mining activities. On the moon, large deposits of helium-3 and titanium have been discovered.

So, if they don’t agree with the UN, who does the US think the moon belongs to?

In the US, there are domestic laws covering space exploration by its citizens, which are enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA]. The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 establishes that citizens cannot launch vehicles into space without permits. The idea seems laughable now (oh yes, let me just nick into space with my backyard rocket ship), but I’m sure if someone had told the Wright Brothers about the now feasible two-hour flight from Sydney to London they’d have laughed just as hard.

In 2015, the US passed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which covers mineral extraction on celestial objects by US citizens. Essentially, the law states that resources on celestial bodies do not belong to anyone until that resource is in one’s possession, and celestial bodies don’t belong to anyone at all. This is in the same way that you don’t own either the ocean or  all the fish in the ocean, but you own the ones you do catch. This is in violation of Article 11 of The Moon Treaty, which states only an “international regime” can extract these “resources”, though neither of those two terms have been defined by the UN.

So what is the alternative to the current Moon Treaty? One option is a legal framework similar to Antarctica, where no nation owns it but all are free to conduct scientific missions there. Another is law like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and how it defines rights to open waters. There are issues with both of these suggestions. There is, however, a third authority on moon sovereignty whom we can ask.

Ask an American man named Dennis Hope, he will say Dennis Hope owns it. In 1980 Hope wrote to the UN, claiming sovereignty over the moon. He never received a response. Hope bases his claim on the fact that the Moon Treaty states no nation can make a claim on the moon – it says nothing about individuals.

This hasn’t stopped Hope. He now makes a living selling tracts of the moon. His clientele includes the Marriott and Hilton hotel chains, and former US Presidents Jimmy Carter, George W Bush, and Ronald Regan. He has since established a sovereign nation (the Galactic Government, of whom he is president) to protect the interests of the 3 million moon property owners. The nation has a currency (deltas, backed by the helium-3 on the moon), a flag and a constitution. One would think establishing this sovereign nation would violate his legal loophole based on the individual, but Hope has explained that the Galactic Government is not a part of the UN, and therefore not bound by its treaties. He is currently trying to get deltas recognised by the International Monetary Fund.

So the question of who owns the moon? Technically no one, but also maybe Dennis Hope. The good news is, you too can own some of the moon, for just 19.50 USD!*

*Total $34.50 after Galactic Government tax and postage & handling of deed.

Words by Kylie Matthews, art by Jade Newton

This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 4 GIRL