Will the next space race be for real estate on the moon?

Rita de Brún believes the next stage of the space race will be for — lunar real estate.

No government is allowed to own the moon or any other celestial body. Under the Outer Space Treaty they are ‘the province of all mankind’.

The fact that the treaty doesn’t expressly prohibit individuals or corporate enterprises from owning them is a loophole that has enriched some and concerned others.

The Moon Agreement forbids the exploitation of space, the moon and other celestial bodies for profit. It also prohibits individuals from claiming ownership of them.

Dates are interesting here. The Moon Agreement, while signed in 1979, didn’t come into force until 1984. In the meantime, an enterprising American by the name of Dennis Hope, sprang into action. In 1980, asserting that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty doesn’t apply to individuals; he filed a declaration of ownership of the moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus and Io (one of Jupiter’s moons), with the UN and with the US and Russian governments.

To date, only a handful of countries have signed the Moon Agreement. Ireland isn’t one of them. Nor is the US, the UK, Russia, China or any space-exploring nation. That’s understandable. Why sign a document that sounds a death-knell for profitable enterprise in outer space?

Through Hope’s companies, moon plots have been sold to close to three million people. NASA scientists and astronauts are among them. So too are Ronald Regan, Jimmy Carter, George HW Bush and hundreds of celebrities including Nicole Kidman, Mick Jagger, Tom Hanks, John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

The Irish have got in on the act, purchasing through Hope’s company, Moon Estates. Lunar ambassador Francis Williams, says he has sold ‘tens of thousands’ of lunar acres here. A lunar acre can be had for just €23.30, making it a manageable purchase for most.

For Hope, there’s no lunar ownership quandary. He owns the moon and that’s that. But others are concerned. In a recently published science paper, The Peaks Of Eternal Light: A Near-Term Property Issue On The Moon, three co-authors, of whom British philosopher Tony Milligan is one, identify ‘indeterminacies’ in the Outer Space Treaty, of the kind that might permit some to claim, if not ownership of the peaks, then something close to that.

In the paper, the co-authors imagine a situation in which a telescope is placed at the moon’s so-called ‘peaks of eternal light’ (the elevated points which, due to the small axial tilt of the Moon, are almost always in direct sunlight — up to 80% of the time) for scientific research purposes. Should it be claimed that the study requires non-disturbance, then under the Treaty, nobody could trespass, and effective possession of the peaks would be gained.

Those peaks are possibly the most valuable areas on the Moon. They offer a constant source of solar electricity. And they’re located alongside deep mineral-rich craters that contain water. If anywhere on the Moon beckoned ‘industry,’ this is it.

Some believe there’s enough Helium-3 on the Moon to fuel the Earth for years to come. They also believe it would not produce dangerous waste products.

Not everyone agrees Helium-3 would make a safe energy source for our planet. In a 2007 article, Fears over Factoids, Oxford theoretical physicist Frank Close dismissed the notion. Since then he has not changed his mind. “I referred to this as ‘moonshine’ in 2007 and nine years later this is still true” he says.

Moonshine it may be, but never before have more corporates been actively bent on visiting the Moon. For that, Google can take a bow. 16 private companies are currently hoping to win the $20 million prize it offered in a competition for the first private sector team to land a probe there by the end of next year.

Of course there’s more to space than mining. At Vox media’s recent code conference, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos said heavy industry should be carried out in outer space so as to protect the Earth from toxins and pollutants — a goal in which his reusable rocket-making company Blue Origin is sure to play a role.

Tony Milligan envisions the space race hotting up, but not for some time.

“While lunar real estate has been the dream of various private corporations for quite a while, nobody has had the funds to do anything about it and certainly not anyone from the private sector,” he says.

“What could be a game-changer is the emergence of new space powers such as China. They’ve wanted to engage in lunar mining for quite a while; particularly [to get] Helium-3 for fusion energy on the Earth. If one country starts to seriously target a lunar presence it’s unlikely that it will be the only one to do so. Others will join in. That’s when the claims of rights and the ambiguities of existing space law would be severely tested. Everyone will want to effectively control the peaks.”

Angela Young from Dennis Hope’s company Moon Estates confirmed to the Irish Examiner that: “Dennis has claimed the surface of all of the planets so yes that includes the ‘peaks of eternal light’ as they’re sometimes referred to. As for the peaks, I’ve had it confirmed that they won’t be sold and have been set aside; the whole of the pole areas have been designated as being of particular importance.”

Tony Milligan says: “It’ll take a while to put together a mission and a while to get the right technology in place and I don’t see anyone committing in a big way before 3D printing makes it viable to construct at least some of the infrastructure in situ.

“That’s likely to be possible within a decade or so. So, maybe the timescale is 10 years at the very low end, and 25 at the top.”

What should be done to ease the path? “Formal treaties about space are difficult to secure,” says Milligan. “The Outer Space Treaty happened because of the Cold War and fears about the other side securing the high-ground of Space. None of that is in place. But I think we could start to see a less fear-driven international discussion and some rough and ready ‘rules of the game’ put in place quite quickly, over the coming decade.”

Frank Close believes the moon could be ‘a useful launch pad’ because of its low gravity. But to that he adds this proviso: “The limiting factor for humans is radiation in space.

“Mars is at the limits. A journey to Jupiter would give the equivalent of a cancer treatment dose over the whole body, which would be fatal. Until a practical way of shielding against cosmic radiation is found, human space exploration beyond Mars —and possibly even to Mars — will remain science fiction.”

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from Department of Space Colonization