Will anyone own land in space? Could an individual, company or country claim the Moon? Will we have countries in space, organized by ideas and religions, and territories just as we have on Earth? Will they go to war with each other over territories, resources or ideas as they do on Earth?

Look at this carefully, and you find that there are various things about the space environment that make a difference from the way things work on the Earth. Many of our Earth based concepts may be impossible to apply in space or may need to be radically changed.

This is not just an academic question. It's already lead to some vigorous debate. Partcularly, Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace has recently said he wants property rights to be extended to the Moon.

That's a major issue since the Outer Space Treaty specifically forbids it. As an international treaty, the US government or organizations couldn't change this by itself even if they wanted to. So what is gong to happen in this impasse?

If you look at it carefully, the Bigelow idea is more nuanced than you might think from some of the news stories. They don't want to own land on the Moon. They want functional rights for their habitats and immediate vicinity. That may be consistent with the OST, if you look at it in detail.

However, it would need additional legislation, which would be highly controversial all the same, for reasons that aren't that obvious until you think it through in detail, as we'll see.

This idea of functional rights is not the only suggestion for extending the OST to cover property rights in space. It's the idea that's had most coverage in the news I think, and I'll focus on it here, but there are other ideas, for instance Wayne White's idea of basing it on sovereignty and judicial overview for safety reasons, based on precedent such as the safety exclusion zone around the ISS within which it takes over direction and control of incoming vessels.


In all of this, do be aware, I'm not a lawyer. This should not be taken as legal advice. For details follow up the links to the papers and talks by specialists in space law. If you notice any mistakes in this do let me know in the comments. Thanks!


Wherever we build in space, and whatever the future space legislation may be, there is one major difference from Earth. The actual land itself has almost no value for humans. There is nothing growing on it, and nothing can grow on it until you build on top of it. Also, there is plenty of it into the foreseeable future, so there is no scarcity of supply either.

So, though habitats like the Bigelow habitats are valuable to humans, we don't need to own land in space, because it is essentially almost valueless for humans.

It is probably not even of much value as a building site except in a few very special locations such as the peaks of eternal light at the poles of the Moon, or pre-existing natural caves.

Apart from that, most ideas for habitats could be placed anywhere where there is a reasonably flat space, or even free floating in space so long as they are adequately shielded from cosmic radiation.

Land like this on Mars is of no intrinsic value to humans. You can't grow crops there, or plant trees.

Actually myself, as you may from the other articles here, I think there is a reasonable chance that we won't want to have humans on Mars because I expect us to find interestingly different life there. If so then I expect Chris McKay's idea to do biologically reversible exploration would prevail, which he has said means you need to be able to remove all Earth microbes from Mars in the future.

But whether or not we have humans on Mars, we might have greenhouses there that export crops to orbit - as some forms of hydroponics are possible without introducing Earth microbes to Mars. If so , the greenhouses on Mars would be valuable for humans, but not the land they are built on.

Parts of it may be valuable as sources of minerals or metals. Parts maybe of special value for tourism (spectacular locations or sites that are easy to inhabit).

In places where water is rare, ice deposits may be of value. Caves may be of value as they are scarce.

But nowhere in space is of value for growing crops or trees until we build on it. And by far the most land area in space is of this almost totally worthless type, for humans.

This is a major difference from Earth.

This suggests that space settlements can probably work just fine without any ownership of tracts of land.

The same is true also for other places in the solar system. Even floating cloud colonies on Venus would still be like this, if we ever build those. True, plants would be able to grow there without much modification of the environment, mainly protection from the acid in the clouds - still - they can only grow inside of habitats. Since the habitats float in the upper atmosphere, there's no intrinsic value in any part of the Venusian surface, except for mining and minerals.

There's nowhere in the solar system outside of Earth where you can grow anything without first building a habitat to grow it in, now, or for at least a few centuries into the future (terraforming on Mars, if possible at all, see Trouble with Terraforming Mars, takes centuries to make conditions habitable enough to grow plants out of doors).

So, space colonists probably won't care too much about owning land as such, not as we do on Earth.

However it seems that they would need to have functional ownership, including functional ownership of habitats, and of mines for commercial development - at least, they would need that if you follow the Western capitalist model for space development.

This is what Bigelow want essentially - functional ownership which also gives them rights over a small area around their habitat. It's an area that grows if they have humans on board, for safety of the humans, and shrinks if it is unoccupied.

This is easier to make consistent with the Outer Space Treaty which almost all nations have signed. So at first sight it may seem quite promising as a way ahead. However there is more here than meets the eye - it's not as straightforward as you'd think.

In discussions of this sort of thing, people who are keen on the idea of owning land in space often suggest withdrawing from the Outer Space Treaty. So we need to understand this first, why all discussion of these points is so focused on the treaty, and what it says and why it is so important.


The problem is that the OST (and it's three "child treaties" on rescue, liability and registration of objects launched into space), at the moment is the only space law protecting us in space. For instance, it is the only treaty that prevents nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in orbit.

It's also the only treaty that prevents nations from claiming the Moon or other solar system bodies as their own territory. That's why we don't need to worry that the Chinese mission to the Moon is a precursor to an attempt to claim part of the Moon as Chinese territory. We also don't need to worry that US or Russia might decide to use their 1960s and 1970s hardware and historical landings on the Moon as a precedent to try to claim it, or parts of it, as theirs.

It's a remarkable achievement that so many countries have signed it.

Here is a map of all signatories of the Outer Space Treaty. Green here means signed and ratified. Yellow means signed, but not ratified. Notice that it is signed and ratified by all the major space faring nations and I think just about any with space faring ambitions also, even including North Korea.

Here is a list of the signatories: Outer Space Treaty

You can see what a remarkable achievement this is when you compare it with the Moon treaty, the only other major attempt so far at space legislation. This has been ratified by only seven nation states so far, Austria, Chile, Morocco, Netherlands, Peru, the Phillipines, and Uruguay. None of the major space faring nations have supported it - unless you count Netherlands because of Mars One

That shows how hard it is to get nation states to agree on a treaty about space. The OST is not likely to be renegotiated in the near future.

However the great thing about functional ownership is that it is consistent with the OST. It would amount to an extra agreement or treaty on top of the OST agreed upon by the main space faring nation states. Which again could be gradually ratified by more and more nations like the OST.


You sometimes get people saying that private individuals could escape from the provisions of the OST by launchng from a non signatory state or from the sea. For instance sometimes people say that if Elon Musk were to launch from a floating ocean platform, he wouldn't be bound by it.

However that's not true. The treaty is clear. It doesn't matter how you get into space. You could get into space slowly over a number of days in an orbital airship. You'd still be bound by it as a citizen of a signatory state.

The relevant article is article VI

Article VI
States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization.

This means that however SpaceX gets into space, the United States government is responsible for authorizing and supervising their activties in space to make sure that they comply with the OST.

For Mars One, then the Netherlands government is similarly responsible for authorizing and supervising all their actions in space.

For more about this see Michael Listner in his Space Law Review for 2013 on the Space Show. He took Mars One as an example, and explained that the Netherlands government is responsible for their actions in space, no matter how they get into space. Michael LIstner is a lawyer specialist in space law, and founder and principal of Space Law and Policy Solutions, a firm that counsels governmental and private organizations on matters relating to space law and policy

You could only evade the OST by renouncing citizenship of any signatory state. If, for instance, Elon Musk wanted to act outside of the OST, he would need to renounce his US citizenship, and become a citizen of say Tonga or some other non signatory - and start up a new space company there.

Even then though, his rockets would use US technology and components and so his launches would still be governed by US law. The owner of the mission, payload and passengers would also be governed by the OST if they were citizens of an OST signatory.

It's a complex situation legally. But whatever the details, it doesn't seem at all likely there would be any future legally in attempting something like that.

I used Elon Musk here as a "for instance" simply because in internet debates SpaceX or Mars One are often used as an example in this context. Of course, I don't mean to suggest at all that Elon Musk has any such plans.

Bigelow, Mars One, SpaceX and all the other private companies with space aspirations fully intend to comply with all the provisions of the OST as far as I know.


For details see Real Property Rights in Outer Space. and for Bigelow's particular proposals, see Bigelow: Moon Property rights would help create a lunar industry

First, if you make a habitat then you own that habitat. That's already the case under the OST.

Also, if you take hardware into space you own that, again in the OST.

Now there is one awkwardness under the current OST. Though the US owns the lunar modules, rovers etc on the Moon, and the Russians the lunakhods, and the Chinese their lander - and same also for the Russian and US landers on Mars - they can't prevent others from removing their hardware.

Technically, under the OST, any other nation could go to the Moon or to Mars or anywhere else, and return those machines to Earth. The only provision under the OST is that on return to Earth, they have to give them back to the original owners.

This is the Article VIII

A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return.

This would need some tweaking, some extra rules or agreements that all space faring nations would make between themselves either informally or formally, or could be a treaty like the OST but one that is added on top of the OST so not needing renegotiation of the OST.

That's just a for example. You'd need laws to cover functional ownership of habitats as Bigelow desired, also of resources, possibly even functional ownership of individual asteroids if small enough.


That may seem reasonable - but another view on it is that the wealthiest nations, the ones able to send rockets into space, shouldn't have a monopoly on the financial benefits you can get from space.

For instance, suppose companies from the US, ESA, Russia, or China start mining platinum in space (many space rocks, the so called "iron meteorites", are rich in platinum).

A platinum rich asteroid could be worth trillions, potentially increasing the wealth disparity between the space faring nations and the non space faring nations even more. Indeed the difference could potentially be huge, a small asteroid could be worth as much as the entire world earns in a year.

A single company, or a group of companies in space, if they could reduce their costs enough so it is worth while supplying the Earth - they could potentially completely undercut entire industries on the Earth. It might no longer be economically worthwhile mining platinum, gold, and various other valuable metals, on Earth. The space companies would be the sole suppliers.

It's not so expensive to import materials from space to Earth as you might think. The initial outlay is high of course, to set up your mining equipment on the asteroid.

But after that, you could use ice from the asteroids or comets as fuel. It's not that much, less delta v than you need to launch to Earth from the Moon for some of the Near Earth Objects, e.g. the NEO Nerus requires only 5 km / second delta v to return materials to Earth - less than for the Moon.

Then, there's an idea to use the natural rotation of the asteroid (nearly all asteroids spin) to launch payloads with a tether spin. This is a similar idea to the space elevator - but while that's a difficult future technology possibility - the equivalent on an asteroid is easy and practical. It's a possibility for small mining operations on the larger asteroids - or for a sample return. However, you can only return a small percentage of the asteroid before it despins completely.

For smaller asteroids a tether could be useful as a method of despinning it before you start operations. Robert Hoyt's new WRANGLER NASA study (June 4 2014) will look into a method for doing this with a nanosatellite. "The leverage offered by using a tether to extract angular momentum from a rotating space object enables a very small nanosatellite system to de-spin a very massive asteroid or large spacecraft." - see WRANGLER: Capture and De-Spin of Asteroids and Space Debris

Then to land it on the Earth you don't need to decellerate of course, and you don't need a heavy heat shield either. You could use a lightweight infltable ballute heatshield.

Or, a more recent idea, use this new inflatable heat shield called HIAD developed by NASA which may be available soon. It's already been tested and found to survive re-entry from space.

HIDA - Inflatable heat shield being developed by NASA to make it easier to land large payloads on Mars and on the Earth

Artist impression of it is used for an Earth re-entry. Images from this news story from NASA. For the 2012 test, which was successful, used for an actual re-entry from space, see Nasa's inflatable heat shield survives toughest test yet

Lightweight heat shields like this, together with use of ice from asteroids for fuel could be used to supply materials from asteroids to Earth.

Of course this is all potentially of great benefit to the Earth, to get new supplies of these materials - especially platinum which is in short supply here and a useful metal, not just for jewelry, the least reactive metal, corrosion resistant, conductive, ductile, malleable,.... - would surely be used more if it wasn't so rare and precious on Earth.

But how can that be managed financially? How can it be done in a way that is fair for all nations not just space faring nations?

Flyover of the tiny asteroid Eros by NEAR Shoemaker in 2000

Eros is approximately 34.4×11.2×11.2 kilometres - a tiny asteroid. The resources on Eros have been estimated at a value of 20 trillion dollars at present day prices of platinum, gold etc - though of course importing so much material would depress prices. What would it do to the world economy if space faring nations were to gain access to this wealth at the expense of the non space faring nations?

See also Single asteroid worth £60 trillion if it was mined – as much as world earns in a year

One of the provisions in the Moon treaty is that all wealth streaming from space industry should be divided equally between all nations, including non space faring nations.

When you look at the vastness of potential wealth from space, and the potential effect on the world economy, you can see their point.

The space faring nations object that this is impractical, and that commerce can only work in space if you have ownership of the mines by individuals able to make a profit on their enterprise.

Here is the relevant section of the Moon treaty:

6. In order to facilitate the establishment of the international regime referred to in paragraph 5 of this article, States Parties shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations as well as the public and the international scientific community, to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, of any natural resources they may discover on the Moon.
7. The main purposes of the international regime to be established shall include:
(a) The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the Moon;
(b) The rational management of those resources;
(c) The expansion of opportunities in the use of those resources;
(d) An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the Moon, shall be given special consideration.

This is the main sticking point that prevented widespread adoption of the Moon treaty. I think both sides of this argument have a point here.

Especially in the initial stages, how can commercial companies get started on space mining if they have to divide profits equally between all nations of the Earth?

But on the other hand, looking a bit further into the future - how can it be fair for the space faring nations to grab such a huge slice of future industry for themselves, to the disadvantage of the non space faring nations?

And how can that avoid increasing disparities between the wealthy and poor nations in the world, in the future, if companies based in space faring nations have such a monopoly on precious metals and other imports from space?

I have no idea how you can resolve it. Do you have any thoughts? Do say in the comments.

Incidentally, though the US hasn't signed or ratified the Moon Treaty, it hasn't renounced it either. Which leads to an interesting legal situation, apparently it's not totally clear whether or not it is bound by it, especially if it takes no action to refute its legitimacy, which it hasn't done so far.

"Even with only six nations ratifying the Moon Treaty, the fact that eleven other nations, including Australia, France, and India, have acceded to or become signatories to the Moon Treaty creates a shadow of customary law that could grow such that non-parties could find themselves overshadowed by the penumbra of the Moon Treaty, especially if those non-parties take no action to refute its legitimacy."

Michael Listner:The Moon Treaty: failed international law or waiting in the shadows?


Some of the players in space mining are in favour of benefit sharing. Jim Keravala, of the Shackleton Energy Co. is strongly in favour of both benefit sharing and sharing of technology with other countries at a service level, so they can have their own space programs and opportunities. Much in the way they have access to airplane technology and GPS services, at a level permitted under arms control regulations.

He talks about it here, with some passion, 34 minutes in : the SpaceShow, Friday, 12-14-12. He believes that by the end of this century we could establish a society which, world wide, has no child without health, well being, education, and freedom to choose their future, and that that is not a utopian vision but something we can realistically achieve.


One other approach due to Wayne Whyte is to base the property rights on sovereignty. He has examined the first article of the OST and determined that though it prevents judicial sovereignty based on land - it does not prevent judicial sovereignty of governments, such as the US for instance, over habitats in space, based on considerations such as the safety of humans in the habitats. He cites as one of his examples that could motivate future space law, the safety zone around the ISS, which is a controlled zone. Incoming spacecraft surrender to control and direction of the ISS when they get closer than a certain distance.

This is similar to the way that the sea immediately around an oil rig is a controlled zone at sea for safety reasons. When ships are close to an oil rig, the rig owners will either take over control directing their approach, or else, if they are not expected visitors, warn them to keep away for safety reasons.

For Wayne Whyte's views see his talks on the SpaceShow


Whatever the decision about all these other issues, it seems pretty clear from the OST that we are not likely to get any actual ownership of land in space in the near future.

I think myself that that is good actually that we are forced to work within the OST, because, perhaps almost by chance, it turned out to be a really excellent forward looking well thought out treaty.

When you don't have ownership of solar system bodies outside of the Earth that's far less reason for conflict and makes co-operation between astronauts of different backgrounds easier and reduces likelihood e.g. of wars between groups of colonists in space.


Many people have claimed ownership of objects in outer space - dating back at least 250 years to Prussia, where King Frederick granted title to the Moon to a farmer with “healing powers”.

However these claims are not considered legally valid. To show up the legal absurdity of some of these claims, a lawyer recently claimed ownership of the sun. Another case is a lawyer who, amusingly, claimed ownership of an asteroid which he knew that NASA was about to visit, and sent an invoice to NASA for parking and storage fees of $20, to pay for one full century of rent. (He filed his claim online at the Archimedes Institute - which provided a free online registry of such claims - of course without any legal backing whatsoever).

NASA refused to pay, of course, citing the OST, and he took it to the courts, and again, not surprisingly, lost his case.

For more about all this, see Unreal Estate: The Men Who Sold the Moon by Virgiliu Pop.


If you've been following my articles and opinion pieces, you'll know that I I think there is a significant chance that we'll find interestingly different life on Mars, and that as a result, that we may well decide not to send humans to Mars surface, only study it from orbit.

Also for long term space settlement, I think free space gives more room to expand, rather than on planetary surfaces - that is - with the exception of favoured places on the Moon such as the peaks of eternal light at the poles, and possibly lunar caves.

I don't see much advantage in anywhere else in the solar system myself for humans, over colonies made from material from the asteroid belt - except - long term - the atmosphere of Venus, floating colonies in the clouds - theoretically a considerable advantage, many things to like about it except difficulty of return to Earth (and has got potential planetary protection issues as well) - if you want to know more about why I think that, see Will We Build Colonies That Float Over Venus Like Buckminster Fuller's "Cloud Nine"?

You may think space colonies are impractical, if you think in terms of Stanford Torus type habitats from the get go. But you would start small just as for the Moon or Mars, smaller habitats in a tether spin. As time goes on tether more and more habitats around a central hub until you get your first wheel type habitats. Then as time goes on later build larger Stanford Torus or O'Neil cylinders from scratch.

This gives more room for civilization to expand in space than any other approach, almost limitless potential - and mean we can start building close to Earth, where the settlements are more useful to us and more valuable. That's a calculation that goes back to the 1970s and is the original motivation for those 1970s designs, why they targeted space colonies instead of planetary or lunar surfaces.

It's amazing how much habitable space you get that way.

Using the materials in the tiny Martian moon Deimos alone - if it is decided that it is okay to mine Deimos, you could build habitats in orbit around Mars with total surface area of Stanford Tori with about 100,000 square kilometers of living area.

That's roughly the size of Iceland, larger than Scotland, or Norway, more than twice the size of Switzerland, which could be useful for Mars orbital colonies.

In terms of US states, that's about the size of Oregon or Colerado. And that's just the ground floor of the colony - most of the mass is needed for cosmic radiation shielding. In some designs you then have multiple layers of habitation inside of that - and in any case certainly multiple story buildings inside. And far more spacious and congenial to humans than surface settlments because you can build big spacious regions in space like this, rotating for artificial gravity.

Mars's moon Deimos has enough material in it to build Stanford toruses with total surface area twice the size of Switzerland or same area as the state of Oregon - and that's just the ground floor of the habitats.

This is a "for instance". I am not saying that we should dismantle Deimos in its entirety to make habitats. hjether we should is another matter - but whether or not - Deimos is a tiny moon, so it serves to show that there is plenty of material in NEOs or the asteroid belt. It would be easy to transport materials to Mars orbits in any future with extensive space settlement, if that's what we decide to do.

Asteroids and NEOs have plenty of material for space construction, and there are techniques (mini space elevators, asteroid belt cyclers, interplanetary superhighway gravity assists) that would make it easy to move this material to anywhere we need it, with almost no expenditure of fuel, with enough advance notice for the order. You can get fuel from the asteroids anyway if you need it.
That's amazing when you realize how tiny Deimos is.

It's similar in size to Easter Island - here is Easer Island shown to, very roughly, the same scale as the above photograph of Deimos.

(The dimensions of Deimos are 15 × 12.2 × 11 km)

Deimos has more than enough material to build many spacious habitats shielded from cosmic radiation - surprisingly - with the total ground area of them all larger than the whole of Scotland

When you add it all up you find that the asteroid belt has enough material to make habitats with a total land area a thousand times that of the land area of the Earth. Land area in spacious habitats, to build cities on or grow trees on - not just "floor area". This is a calculation that goes back to the 1970s.

The bulk of the weight is for cosmic radiation shielding. Many plans for these types of habitats have multiple layers of settlement within them. If you used those construction plans, there would be even more living area available than that - if we do ever build colonies in space

For more about this see Asteroid Resources Could Create Space Habs For Trillions; Land Area Of A Thousand Earths


Details of course have to be worked out by the lawyers and treaty negotiators. We've already seen there may be major issues there.

So, let's look at it the other way, instead. Rather than try to figure out how to make it legal, let's just ask, what are the minimum requirements you'd need to be secure as someone living in a space habitat?

First, after you build a habitat, you would want to keep ownership of it, so long as you continue to use it. This so far seems okay by the OST, you do own things that you make yourself.

You would want to have a reasonable area of occupancy around it, others couldn't come and build habitats right next to yours without your permission or do things that endanger residents such as risky fly by missions.

And - obviously want it so that others can't move your habitat back to Earth or just move it to somewhere else in space that they find more convenient if you get in their way.

(1970s artwork for the Stanford Torus idea)

This whole habitat, for 10,000 people, could be constructed from the material in a small NEO a few hundred meters across.

To avoid the solar system becoming filled up with regions nobody can use because of ancient scrap from previous failed attempts - you'd need to add agreements on top of that, that if it is abandoned for some period of time then others can take it over - say after a decade, or a century, whatever just some fixed period as seems appropriate.

Where abandoned would mean, with no habitation, or no remote control from Earth or other habitats - depending on circumstances.

But if continually inhabited or continually operated as a normal facility of its type - then others would not be permitted to move it - or build another habitat right next to it - or indeed, to enter it either, without permission of the owners.

This would apply both to habitats on planetary surfaces and habitats in orbit in free space.

Similarly if you start a mine you'd own the mine, but not the asteroid you are mining, but would have some functional ownership say of the region around the mine or for small space rocks, the entire rock, that you have the right to mine it in its entirety.

But - whether we can arrange for all that legally is another issue, as we've seen, with the Moon treaty.

It's something that may need to be resolved in the near future, with several space mining companies already set up with plans to mine materials from space soon - Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. First they would mine ice, for LEO, and then the precious metals. There's the Shackleton Energy Company also with plans to mine polar ice from the Moon to supply to LEO.

It will take our best and brightest legal minds to solve this one I think.


The earliest mention of space mining in science fiction may be Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss

"The Precious Metal Discovered.

I shall never forget the sight, nor the exclamations of wonder that broke forth from all of us standing around, when the yellow gleam of the precious metal appeared under the "star dust." Collected in huge masses it reflected the light of the sun from its hiding place.

Evidently the planet was not a solid ball of gold, formed like a bullet run in a mould, but was composed of nuggets of various sizes, which had come together here under the influence of their mutual gravitation, and formed a little metallic planet.

Judging by the test of weight which we had already tried, and which had led to the discovery of the gold, the composition of the asteroid must be the same to its very centre"

Another early mention is Jules Verne's posthumously published book, The Chase of the Golden Meteor (originally written in 1901)

For more about history of space mining ideas, actual and fictional, see Asteroid mining's peculiar past from the Paleofuturist (BBC).


We will surely need some provisions regarding historical interest - so nobody could set up home in the lunar modules on the Moon for instance because of historical interest even though they have been abandoned, and you'd have preservation parks around sites of special interest. So historical landing sites would be preserved areas, even the astronauts footprints and the tracks of the first missions may be protected by international agreements.

So again same on Mars, the rovers there, and spaceships might be protected as historical interest.

That is, except that in the case of Mars it's possible we might need to make the whole of Mars into a space park and exclude humans from it, for some time at least.

We might need to remove all the hardware from the surface and sterilize their surroundings. Chris McKay suggested that anyway - if it turns out to be biologically interesting and different from Earth (which I expect to happen myself, reasonably high probability once we do start to do a proper biological exploration of Mars) - to preserve the planet from Earth contamination by our microbes.

See Mars Pathfinder

If there is interesting life on Mars we may need to sterilize all our rovers there from early missions - in this case Sojourner, quite possibly also remove them from Mars. If that's not necessary, then they may be preserved as of historical interest in Mars parks.

Also special areas like for instance if ice deposits at the poles of the Moon are of particular scientific interest - we might set aside some part of them to be preserved - or lunar caves also, though likely to be desirable for human colonies, they may also be of great scientific interest also. So that may need to be resolved.

Asteroids also could be of interest - some of them more than others. There might be some requirement that any asteroid has to be opened to a scientific study before it is mined - similarly to archaeologists investigating a building site with a dig before construction goes ahead.

Ideas for planetary parks have been discussed, in recent COSPAR workshops. With no definite conclusions or resolutions yet. See 'Planetary Parks' Could Protect Space Wilderness


What happens if someone sets up a habitat - but then the settlers no longer want to be bound by them? Especially if they do achieve the goal of self sufficiency eventually? Of course, it's not likely that any will be self sufficient in the near future, but will rely on Earth for computers, spacesuits, many components of their system. But further in the future maybe this can happen.

And who enforces the OST if some group decides it wants to claim territories in space for itself counter to the OST?

Well one thought here is that in the near future space colonies will be vulnerable, as it's a harsh environment; just a crashing spaceship would destroy a colony. So they will need to co-operate to a far higher degree than we do on Earth. A space war would end quickly with all habitats of all those concerned destroyed (because a single incoming spaceship or a large piece of debris, or of construction material at the km/sec velocities easily achieved in space would quickly destroy an entire habitat).

Destruction of ISS in Gravity. Any habitat in space would be vulnerable to destruction by an incoming spaceship or even a large piece of debris from it. So space wars in space in conventional sense would seem to be impossible - they would end quickly with all habitats of all those involved in the war destroyed.

This is equally true for colonies in space or on planetary surfaces, or the Moon or asteroids - and even colonies floating in the upper Venusian atmosphere - though protected to some extent by the thick Venus atmosphere - and not so vulnerable as most space colonies to small fast moving objects which would burn up in the atmosphere - and small meteorites anyway would just puncture the habitats creating a slow leak since the inside is at the same pressure as the outside with the Venusian floating colonies - still they would obviously be very vulnerable to any major collisions e.g. with an incoming spaceship.


That's where the impossibility of warfare comes in. How could you have warfare in the conventional sense with habitats so fragile?

Either we end conventional warfare or never have it in space - or we don't succeed in space, I think those are the main possibilities.

I am reminded here of the way that stags fight in a rut. They could easily blind each other or indeed kill each other - but do so rarely because of the ritualized combat methods, in their case by instinct, they lock antlers to fight.

Whitetail deer bucks locking antlers during late rut in Cades Cove, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Blount County, Tennessee, United States. Image by Brian Stansberry.

In the same way colonies in space could easily destroy each other - but they will surely not do that, and will develop other ways of resolving disputes.

It might involve some higher authority like the UN in space, or sport - games of chance - depending on the situation, what it is you want to resolve. Even if there is no shortage of resources and nothing really to dispute about, still chances are that we will need a way of dealing with natural human competitiveness in society in space.

Goodness knows how we'd do it - but it is hard to see warfare with weapons fired at habitats working in space. No habitat could be shielded against things moving at the kilometers per second velocites that any space settlement would be able to achieve easily with rockets or other future spaceships. Firing missiles at an incoming meteorite to explode it would just turn it into a hazardous shrapnel like meteor storm headed straight for your habitat.

You'd be so vulnerable in space, it is hard to see anyone risking starting a war with other colonies, with near future technology at least.

So, I imagine the OST, or something like it, continuing right through into the foreseeable future. Or if not, then something else that takes its place, to help prevent conflict and have ways of resolving issues without conventional warfare which would be impossible for them.


I've raised many questions here, but not given much by way of answers. Nobody has the answers yet. I hope just to bring some clarity to the many internet discussions and debates on these topics, which are often carried out without this background information.

It's not as easy and straighforward as you might think. Indeed, the whole thing is complex and it may take our brightest minds, and new ideas, to find a way forward that will be satisfactory for everyone.


If you are interested to find out more, there are many discussions of these issues in the SpaceShow where it is a continual recurring theme every year - try their guest search for Property Rights - and Benefit Sharing and such like search terms.

There are many talks there I haven't had a chance to listen to yet and I hope to update this article after listening to them. And if you know of any good material on these issues that I or the readers should know about - do share it in the comments also!


What are your thoughts on all this? Do say in the comments.

A few more links to things mentioned in this article: