We all know that the land between Canada and Mexico is the United States, and that the strip of land south of Russia, but north of China, is Mongolia, and that the lone island that sits near New Zealand turns out to be Australia. These places are all there because they were claimed by its people. Just like how calling ‘dibs’ on a brownie makes it yours, calling dibs on a piece of land (with the proper documents, authorities, and occasionally a war, of course) makes it yours. But, currently, this is land that we’re dealing with. We’ve dealt with enough business here on Earth. Now, let’s look above Earth, to where the future is: space.
Is it possible to claim a piece of land, that’s not land? Moreover, can a hard vacuum containing a low density of particles, electromagnetic radiation, magnetic fields, neutrinos, dust, and cosmic rays, better known as space, be claimed the same way that someone can put a flag on land? Although Christopher Columbus, an explorer who has experience with taking land, would agree, the United Nations would not. As reported by Business Insider, “One of the most important bodies of space law is the United Nations ‘Outer Space Treaty.’ It lays out several rules that dictate how countries must behave in space” (Dickerson, 2016). One of the clauses found in this treaty is that “outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States.” This basically means that space is common ground and everyone can legally explore it. But, the treaty also states that “celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes” meaning that no country can harm space in any way. This part of the treaty makes sure that countries can’t have nuclear weapons in space, they can’t build nuclear weapons, and they can’t claim any land in space. Just because the United States of America planted a flag on the moon in 1969, it doesn’t mean that they own that land. This is ensured by the “Moon Agreement”, which states that no country can ‘own’ a celestial object and reinforces the idea that military bases aren’t allowed in space.
The previous part of the treaty leads to another edict: Everything in space counts as international waters. This is portrayed in the movie “The Martian”. The main character is stranded on Mars. When he is inside a NASA-owned Mars habitat, only US law applies. But once he steps outside onto Martian soil, he’s in international waters.
But, obviously people have been trying to sell space property for years. One of these people is Dennis Hope. In a 2013 interview, Hope said, “I sent the United Nations a declaration of ownership detailing my intent to subdivide and sell the moon and have never heard back.” He found a loophole in the Space Treaty, about owning and selling land in space. The treaty never explicitly states that individuals can’t buy the land, only governments. However most policy makers and lawyers agree that Hope doesn’t have a good argument here, and anyone who purchases lunar property from him doesn’t have legal rights to the land.
In conclusion, space is considered to be international waters and no government or person can legally own a celestial body, although some like Dennis Hope have tried. This is all protected by the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement. So, the next time someone like Christopher Columbus says that they are going to claim land in space, it’s not going to be as easy, or legal, as they think.