Who owns the land on the moon?
“There’s a febrile atmosphere of anything-goes absurdity that pitches governments, billionaires and their space toys into the same orbit as chancers.”
The offices of Lunar Embassy are listed to a salmon-pink shopping centre in Nevada, wedged between a Burger King, a Bargain Market and a Guns N Ammo store. The number of staff ranges “between three and 11” according to CEO Chris Lamar, rising and falling according to the popularity of its unusual product: title deeds to property on other planets.
Lamar is a man who claims to sell worlds. The 50-year-old is CEO of Lunar Embassy, a company that he says has sold a billion acres of extraterrestrial land to more than 6m earthbound customers at the knockdown price of around $24.99 per acre (plus postage and packing). Lunar Embassy has made its claims on our solar system thanks to a mix of creative administrative nous and the indifference of the authorities. “Lunar Embassy has claimed the entire ownership of the moon,” says Lamar. “Including mineral resources.”
The mineral resources are important. Nobody took much notice of Lunar Embassy in the ’80s and ’90s, when it was advertising in places like the Innovations shopping catalogue, where its title deeds sat alongside levitating pens, frog phones and wraparound sunglasses. Today, the estimated value of the moon’s natural resources runs into billions, trillions or quadrillions depending on who you ask – and companies are lining up to be the first to harvest the moon – perhaps within the next decade.
Beneath the moon’s cratered, watery patina, which glistens invitingly like a lake scattered with raindrops, there are platinum group metals, rare earth elements, gold, water-ice and a titanium ore called ilmenite which can be processed to make oxygen (vital for sustaining astronauts’ lives on a future moon base). If the space miners can figure out a way to carve up a passing asteroid’s haphazard mosaic of rock and penumbra, the sums are mind-boggling: a metallic asteroid called 16 Psyche has been valued by a NASA scientist at $10,000 quadrillion.
The rewards are huge – and the risks are too. The first private attempt to land on the moon ended in expensive failure this week, as the robotic Beresheet spacecraft, built by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, was dashed to bits on its pristine surface.
It seems everyone is trying to get a footprint on the moon. NASA wants to get astronauts back by 2024 – and to Mars in the 2030s. China’s lunar lander is currently exploring the far side of the moon with a view to establishing a long-term presence on its surface. Japan has developed space robots that have landed on an asteroid 200 million miles from earth. Russia is working on a super heavy-lift vehicle, and India is blasting its own satellites out of the sky.
The world’s richest individual Jeff Bezos has poured about $1bn of Amazon stock into his space company Blue Origin, which competes with billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX (currently valued at $20bn) to be the first to shuttle tourists into space. Both are rubbernecking space resources as they shoot the moon. There is a frontier spirit to the undertaking; a febrile atmosphere of anything-goes absurdity that pitches governments, billionaires and their space toys into the same orbit as chancers looking for a break in an unregulated environment.
And then there are the engineers doing the practical work of figuring out how to actually acquire space resources. Dale Boucher is at the forefront of one of the space industry’s most interesting problems. His company Deltion Innovations researches and develops mining hardware (usually for earthbound projects). They have created a drill that can mine the surface of the moon, without any drilling fluid, in anti-gravity. Designing and manufacturing it was a familiar procedure, he says, but Deltion quickly realised they had nothing to test it on that replicated the gunmetal, cratered, basaltic plains of the moon’s surface.
“So in our naivety at the time, we went to NASA and said, ‘Hey, we want some Lunar Apollo [moon dirt] samples?’” says Boucher. “They said, ‘How much do you want? A gram? Two grams?’ – and we said no…we need like ten tons! We’re going to destroy it.” NASA told Boucher it was illegal to destroy the Apollo samples, and refused to provide them with ten tons of it. So Boucher invested half a million dollars in developing synthetic moon dust.
Moon dust is “bizarre stuff”. The particles are extremely fine – about 50 microns wide on average – and include fragments of glass. This is what gives the surface of the moon its shimmering, twinkly gleam. It also has some unusual properties, according to Boucher. The particles lock together when they’re compressed. This means that — unlike sand, for example — it won’t flow through a funnel, and is difficult to drill. Deltion Innovations wants to be the first mining company in space. Boucher is “certain” that there will be a need for his work “within the next five years”, he says. And it matters to him that Deltion Innovations is first to drill on the moon. “If I’m not, I’ll be disappointed,” he says.
There is another good reason to get in early, however: the contracts are extremely lucrative. United Launch Alliance – a provider of spacecraft launch services to the US government – is looking for a company that can mine 1600 metric tons of water a year from the moon – and it’s willing to pay $800m a year, for a minimum of five years.
Mining water on the moon is so essential because sustaining life on the moon is the first priority. When Boucher asks the space agencies what they want to mine first, “The answer that comes back is water. They want pure water.” Near-pure, crystalline water-ice is locked beneath the moon’s poles, and a few millimetres of ice can be found on some parts of its surface. Also high on the space agencies’ wish list is oxygen, which can be extracted from the gleaming, black ore called ilmenite that coats the surface of craters.
Mining for rarer metals like platinum, by contrast, is much further off. The most realistic outcome is that anything mined in space will be used in space, according to Boucher. It will take a long time before bringing such resources back to earth is practical and commercially viable. “The idea of bringing commodities back from an asteroid or from the moon, to the earth for use on the earth? I think that’s a long way away,” he says.
The value of these commodities is part of the reason that Lunar Embassy is determined to defend its customers’ claim to mineral rights – by doggedly writing letters asserting its claim to a portfolio of celestial bodies that includes Mars, Mercury and Venus. Could this tiny firm really fight off the combined might of the world’s wealthiest tycoons, companies and governments to stake a claim in quadrillions of mineral rights? “I’m 100% confident we can,” says Lamar. “No, 1000% confident. I believe it wholeheartedly.”
It helps that the solution to the problem of carving up the moon is very much a work-in-progress. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty barred any one nation or commercial operation from laying claim to the moon, meaning that today it is the subject of a complex and evolving international legal and regulatory framework.
And then there’s Lamar, an ex-banker who is determined not to be bulldozed by the “giant corporations”. He has already jettisoned several former partners who had the rights to sell some of Lunar Embassy’s stock of land in different territories. They include a UK-based website he says he terminated last year for “blatant” breach of contract (“it’s a fairly fresh wound for them”) and a Canadian website he claims he ejected two-and-a-half years ago. Lamar never sued his former partners, and is cagey about the prospect of litigation (“I’m not really willing to discuss that right now”) – but he maintains that Lunar Embassy is the only company that can authorise the sale of moon land.
Lunar Embassy’s claim is based on what Lamar describes as a deliberate omission from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Although the treaty barred companies and states from sticking a flag in the moon, it said nothing explicitly about individuals. In 1980, a man called Dennis Hope noticed this, and came up with a bold plan. Hope decided he would try and claim the moon.
Claiming land is possible under America’s Homestead Act, originally used to confer property rights to the first settlers. Hope went to the county recorder’s office, paid $35 and filled out a form claiming the entire moon. He wrote to the UN, Soviet government and the US government explaining that he had claimed ownership of the moon and planned to subdivide it to sell. Nobody ever replied – but nobody stopped him either. Which is why, 39 years later, Lunar Embassy claims it has managed to sell title deeds to more than 6 million people.
It’s hard to find people in the space industry who take Hope’s claim seriously. Dr Frans von der Dunk is an actual “space lawyer” who has received countless calls from moon property speculators. His reply is always the same: “It is not possible for an individual to own land on the moon. It’s fake,” he says. “Article two of the Outer Space Treaty excludes national appropriation by states,” he says. “People like Dennis Hope, have tried to argue that means that private appropriation is possible. But if you analyse it a little bit further, that is legal nonsense, because the right of the individual to own land is subject to a national regime dictating the limits and the extension of that right.”
The only way to own the land would be to reach an agreement with every country on earth, according to Dr von der Dunk. “Particular countries have particular procedures for you or me as an individual to obtain ownership over a piece of land,” he says.
If mining companies are going to make it to the moon, however, the law will have to change. The Luxembourg Space Agency is a government-run $200m fund that invests in startups and examines the legal and regulatory framework for ‘space resource utilisation’. In 2017, it became the first European nation to give private companies the rights and ownership of resources extracted in space. The law would need to be agreed by all signatories of the Outer Space Treaty, but it is an important first step to an agreement, according to Mathias Link, the Director of International Affairs and Space Resources at the Luxembourg Space Agency.
“It is certainly a way of increasing the importance of this, and also showing the world that this is actually serious. This is not science fiction. And also showing that this is this will actually happen. But it is also a very real way of starting to approach the legal and regulatory situation.” The next five to ten years “will be mostly missions to better understand what kind of resources are up there.”
It’s only later – perhaps in the next 10 – 20 years – that materials may be mined and processed, according to Mathias. But it’s important to stay ahead of the game. “We are at the moment witnessing a new space race,” says Mathias. “This is [particularly] true for certain countries, and you should look at what happens in China or India. They are catching up extremely rapidly on the US, Europe and Russia.”
Luxembourg may seem like a surprise contender – but it has a long history of investment in the space economy. “No other country really pushes it so hard [as Luxembourg],” says Mathias. “We hope that in the end, we will stay like this, but of course we are aware that there are much larger countries also that will certainly also become active in this because it just makes sense. It is sort of inevitable.”
And at least some of Lamar’s customers seem to agree — and are willing to fight for the land and resources they believe they have the rights to. One is John Tyler, a 69-year-old retiree from Kent, England, who bought plots for his wife and children as an “investment”. If anybody tried to drill on his land, he’d sue.
“Sure, I would go down that route,” he says over email. “I thought that we would be entitled to a share of the findings.”
At Lunar Embassy – which CEO Chris Lamar says is now actually headquartered at his home in Oregon, rather than Nevada – people like John have a vital role to play in the new space economy. Because if Lamar can get all six million title holders to band together, he reasons, Lunar Embassy might just be able to mount a competitive legal challenge. “After all, we’re in uncharted territory,” he says.