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Are there Disputes Over the Moon Territory?

Roscosmos and Russian Academy of Sciences

Roscosmos and Russian Academy of Sciences

“It is considered necessary ... to develop a plan for legal support of the interests of the Russian Federation in possible territorial disputes and to instruct specialized universities to train the necessary number of specialists in space law.”

There are currently no “territorial disputes” in space

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, and the Russian Academy of Sciences are planning to launch a program to prepare “space lawyers” in selected universities to represent Russia’s interests in “territorial disputes” in outer space, specifically on the Moon, the Russian news agency reported on February 6.

The state news agency RIA Novosti said it has obtained the draft of the new national program. Citing Gennady Rakunov, the ex-director of the Russian Institute of Space Technologies, RIA Novosti reported that the move was a reaction to attempts by businessmen in the U.S. and other countries to sell lots on the Moon. Such claims “must be answered from the legal point of view,” Rakunov said.

RUSSIA -- Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Roskosmos State Space Corporation Director General Dmitry Rogozin meet at the Kremlin in Moscow, February 4, 2019
RUSSIA -- Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Roskosmos State Space Corporation Director General Dmitry Rogozin meet at the Kremlin in Moscow, February 4, 2019

The program was announced just two days after President Vladimir Putin met in the Kremlin with Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, on February 4. According to a Kremlin transcript, the only question Putin asked Rogozin concerned “the lunar program.” Rogozin said 45 space launches are planned for 2019, twice the 22 space launches conducted in 2018.

Last November, Rogozin half-jokingly said that Russia's own lunar mission will be tasked with verifying whether the U.S. ever landed on the Moon, feeding a conspiracy theory that is very popular in Russia. It was not the first time Rogozin questioned the U.S. Moon landing.

The Russian reference to “territorial disputes” concerning the Moon is premature, given that there is no public information such territorial disputes have occurred.

However, were there such disputes, Russian state agencies would be violating international law by claiming celestial territories. Specifically, they would be violating the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty and Moon Treaty.

Article 11 of the Moon Treaty states:

  • 1. The moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind, which finds its expression in the provisions of this Agreement, in particular in paragraph 5 of this article.
  • 2. The moon is not subject to national appropriation by any claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
  • 3. Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non- governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person. The placement of personnel, space vehicles, equipment, facilities, stations and installations on or below the surface of the moon, including structures connected with its surface or subsurface, shall not create a right of ownership over the surface or the subsurface of the moon or any areas thereof

Despite the Moon Treaty's seemingly clear language, some have found “loopholes” in it, claiming that since the treaty does not specifically mention private enterprises, its terms do not apply to the private sector, thereby giving companies an opportunity to acquire and trade property on celestial bodies.

As a result, there are numerous websites “selling” property on the Moon, with most of them each claiming they are the only company with “legitimate rights” while all the others are fraudulent.

Despite their dispute over “legitimate rights,” most of these competing websites are each offering lunar territory for $30 an acre.

These putative legal loopholes in the treaties governing space, however, are superseded by the fact that the U.N. treaties hold governments responsible for the actions of their citizens and private enterprises. What is more, the lunar exploration programs announced by various nations and bodies are self-described as “international” -- i.e., in compliance with the U.N. treaties.

For instance, the European Space Agency is planning to build a village on the Moon by 2030. The U.S. space agency NASA said it wants to build a base on the Moon by 2022, and also provide refueling and other services to international settlers and space missions. Russia’s own ambition to build a lunar base by 2020 is now on hold, with a new deadline set for 2040. And China, after a successful Moon landing mission in 2013, said it is investing heavily in its lunar program.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos and the Russian Science Academy Have launched a program preparing “space lawyers”
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