Weird Real Estate

This year marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and Neil Armstrong muttering that crackling, historic sentence about a small step for man and a giant leap for mankind (an utterance, incidentally, that may have been inspired by the “not a great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark line” line from The Hobbit—Armstrong was a big Tolkien fan). A plaque reading “We came in peace for all mankind” was left on the lunar surface, but, more famously, the US flag was also inserted into the dusty ground—an act that historically symbolises an ownership claim over a newfound, or conquered, land. Which begs the question, ‘Who the hell actually owns the Moon?’ And who even decides such things, anyway?

Guardians Of The Galaxy

Following the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by Russia in 1957—beginning the space age—the UN convened to form a special space committee. In 1967, nations such as the US, UK and Soviet Union signed the Outer Space Treaty which stated: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”


But that was by no means the end of the matter.


It has long been suspected that the Moon is rich in natural resources, including water, precious metals like gold and platinum, as well as rare earth metals vital for our electronic devices. And we’re ever closer to developing the technology to mine them.


In 1979, another UN treaty called the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (or, the ‘Moon Agreement’) specified such heavenly destinations must be used only for peaceful purposes, with the UN to be informed of any planned exploration of any kind. Though the agreement was ratified by the likes of France and India, absent signatures include those of Russia, China and the US. Besides, many agree that such international cosmic contracts would be difficult to enforce. 


In 2015, the US passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that recognises its citizens’ ownership of any resources mined from asteroids, a treaty that, say experts, could be extended to include the Moon; while two years later, Luxembourg passed a similar bill that, said its deputy prime minister, Etienne Schneider, would propel the country to become “a European pioneer and leader in this sector”.

China plans to establish a research base there having landed the Chang’e-4 probe on the far side of the Moon at the beginning of 2019 and germinating a cotton seed on its surface, and Japanese company iSpace has announced its goal of “achieving the world’s first commercial lunar exploration program”, the orb being a “vehicle for companies on Earth to access new business opportunities”.


Helen Ntabeni, a lawyer at Naledi Space Law and Policy worries about the implications of such actions, telling the BBC that regardless of whether or not the materials would return to Earth, mining the Moon “is the very opposite of not doing any harm”, adding that she’s “quite sceptical that the moral notions of the world exploring space together as equal nations will be preserved”.


Even though it too is covered by the Outer Space Treaty, similar questions have been raised concerning the recent race to populate Mars—Nasa plans to send astronauts to the red planet in the 2030s, while SpaceX, for example, may well be in a position to send humans there even sooner. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate, says that our excitement at the possibility that “many different players are able to contemplate missions of both commercial and scientific interest to bodies in our solar system” must be tempered by “thoughtful and practical policies” that not only enable discovery, but “preserve the integrity of the planet and the places we’re visiting”.

The oceans cover more than 70 percent of the ocean, hiding all sorts of hidden treasures such as fish, oil and possibly precious metals.


Guardians Of The Globe

The oceans cover more than 70 percent of the ocean, hiding all sorts of hidden treasures such as fish, oil and possibly precious metals. The Unesco Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission sets out to promote international cooperation in terms of ocean exploration, a similar philosophy to the Outer Space Treaty. But according to the US National Atmospheric Administration, less than 20 percent of the seabed has been observed or explored, and, as with Mars, there is a race to get there first. Every coastal nation has sovereign rights over their exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a 200 nautical mile (370-kilometre) region that reaches out from their shoreline; but the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, through the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), allowed for the possibility of stretching that zone if a country can prove its continental shelf stretches beyond that boundary. 


The Arctic seafloor is (unfortunately) bulging with fossil fuels so it’s little wonder a handful of nations are looking to stake their claim on the icy paradise. To the chagrin of Russia and Denmark, earlier this year Canada submitted a sovereignty claim over a large section of the region, including the pole, to the CLCS. With a depressing dose of irony, the massive oil reserves are becoming more accessible as the polar ice retreats. Mapping done by the three countries looking to claim the pole has also revealed several previously unfound sunken mountains, further proof of just how little we know of our underwater world.  


In the early 19th century, the UK was the first to make any kind of claim to Antarctica when ships landed, and flags were planted in the ice. The inhospitable climate meant colonisation was clearly out of the question, but over the following century or so various other governments including France and the Nazis made land claims. In 1959, 12 countries with a history of sending scientists and researchers—including Argentina, the US, Britain, Russia, Chile and New Zealand—signed the Antarctic Treaty, awarding each of them certain sections of the landmass while recognising “that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”. A sizeable no man’s land remains the largest unclaimed area on Earth.