Companies are looking to mine the surface of the Moon for precious materials. So what are the rules of humans who exploit and claim property?
It's almost 50 years since Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. "This is a small step for a man," the American astronaut said, "a great leap for mankind."
Shortly thereafter, his colleague Buzz Aldrin joined him in the Sea of Tranquility. After descending from the steps of the lunar module of the Eagle, he looked at the empty landscape and said, "Magnificent desolation."
Since the Apollo mission July 11, 1969, the Moon has remained virtually untouched – no humans have been there since 1972. But this may change soon, with several companies expressing interest in exploring and possibly mining their surface for features including gold, platinum and rare earth minerals widely used in electronics.
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The Japanese company iSpace is planning to build a "Terra-Moon transport platform" and perform "polar exploration of water" on the Moon.
The moves are underway, so are there rules to ensure that Aldrin's desolation remains intact, or can Earth's only large natural satellite engage in a commercially and politically directed occupation of land and resources?
Potential possession of celestial bodies has been a problem since space exploration began during the Cold War. While NASA planned its first manned lunar missions, the UN created an Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967 by countries such as the US, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.
He stated: "Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by use or occupation, or by any other means."
Joanne Wheeler, director of space company Alden Advisers, describes the treaty as "the Magna Carta of space". It does plant a flag on the Moon – as Armstrong and his successors did – "meaningless" since it does not give any "mandatory right" to individuals, companies or countries, she adds.
In practical terms, land ownership and mining rights to the moon did not matter much in 1969. But as technology developed, exploitation of its resources for profit became a more likely prospect – even though quite distant.
In 1979, the UN produced an Agreement governing the activities of States on the Moon and other celestial bodies, better known as the Moon Agreement. This stipulated that they should be used for peaceful purposes, and that the UN itself should be informed from where and why someone planned to build a station.
The agreement also stated that "the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of humanity" and that an international regime should be established "to govern the exploitation of such resources when such exploitation is about to become viable."
The problem with the Moon Agreement, however, is that only 11 countries have ratified it. France is one and India is another. The biggest players in space – including China, USA and Russia – did not. Not even the UK.
Anyway, Wheeler says that "it is not so easy" to enforce the rules described in the treaties. Different countries incorporate the documents that they sign as law and have the job of ensuring that companies and individuals comply with them.
Professor Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, former chief editor of the Journal of Space Law, agrees that international agreements offer no "guarantees." The application "is a complex mix of politics, economics and public opinion," she adds.
And the existing treaties, denying the national ownership of the celestial bodies, have faced an extra challenge in recent years.
In 2015, the US passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, recognizing the right of citizens to possess whatever resources they could extract from asteroids. It does not apply to the Moon, but the principle can be extended in a viable way.
Eric Anderson, co-founder of exploration company Planetary Resources, described the legislation as the "highest recognition of property rights in history."
In 2017, Luxembourg approved its own act, providing the same right of property to the resources found in space. Deputy Prime Minister Etienne Schneider said that this would make his country "a European pioneer and leader in this sector".
The willingness to explore and make money is there, with countries seemingly increasingly eager to help businesses.
"Clearly, mining, whether with the intention of returning materials to Earth or storing or manufacturing them on the Moon, is the opposite of doing no harm," says Helen Ntabeni, a lawyer for Naledi Space Law and Policy.
She adds that it can be argued that the US and Luxembourg "threatened" their exit from the Outer Space Treaty stipulations. "I am rather skeptical that the moral notions of the world exploring space as equal nations will be preserved," she says.