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.

Lunar Embassy has sold a bil­lion acres of extrater­res­tri­al land to more than 6m earth­bound customers”

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.

Photo @SpaceX.

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.

Could this tiny firm real­ly fight off the com­bined might of the world’s wealth­i­est tycoons, com­pa­nies and governments?”

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 not pos­si­ble for an indi­vid­ual to own land on the moon. It’s fake”

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.

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