Who owns the Moon? © Getty Images

Who owns the Moon?

Many have visited – but who does it belong to?

Historically, lawless colonisation of a new land has rarely ended well. While there are no indigenous peoples or environments that can be harmed on the Moon, the current state of space law could be setting up future lunar colonists for disaster.

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Today, the only international law governing space stems from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that’s overseen by the United Nations. This states that no government can lay claim to the Moon, but failed to foresee that private companies may also want to stake a claim. There’s no discussion of what will happen if two parties want to set up their bases in the same spot. And when it comes to mining, there’s a big grey area over whether the miners would actually be able to claim ownership of the resources they extract.

It’s not just the material resources of the Moon that need protecting though. Lunar water is hugely important to planetary geologists, but its irreplaceable record could easily be destroyed.

“Many questions related to the origin of the Moon’s water require precise sampling and cold-storage with return to Earth for detailed chemical analysis,” says Dr Julie Stopar from the Lunar and Planetary Institute. “While science and industry can work together to study water on the Moon, their goals are often very different. Scientists may require precise knowledge of chemical compositions of small quantities of water and soil, whereas industry might seek to process large quantities of water-ice or water-rich soil, with no concern for trace chemical signatures.”

Science fiction might have predicted a high-tech utopia being established on the lunar surface, but could the reality end up being more like the Wild West, with prospectors fighting over the choicest water deposits? Only time will tell.

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