Who owns the stars?

For those wondering what space law is and who want to delve into a field as intricate as fascinating, here is the first article of our new editorial, curated by Veronica Moronese.

The legal status of celestial bodies

Throughout history, humans have perennially sought to grasp the stars and own a slice of the cosmos, tethering their terrestrial existence to the vast expanse above. From a Quebec resident’s audacious lawsuit for the entire planetary lineup in our solar system to a Prussian king’s intriguing bequeathal of the moon to a healer, to a resident of Nevada ventured into the extraterrestrial real estate market selling lunar plots to millions of eager buyers, these endeavours shape a narrative where the stars themselves become not just distant luminaries but tangible pieces of our shared human story somebody actually desires to grab and possess.

Capitalizing on the public’s fascination, established companies peddle ‘Lunar deeds,’ ‘Stellar properties,’ and similar certificates of ownership, perpetuating a fraudulent illusion of celestial property ownership. These transactions are guided by the deceptive illusion of the possibility to obtain ownership of celestial bodies. While the belief of gifting a distant star to a loved one, persuading them that a mere $50 investment grants them ownership over this celestial body, may seem romantically appealing, it, unfortunately, amounts to nothing more than a deceptive scam.

From a legal perspective, these endeavors lack validity. The captivating narrative of claims to celestial property is intricately linked to a clear legal truth: international law unequivocally asserts that outer space is free for exploration and use by all states, emphasizing the peaceful and common use of outer space for the benefit of all mankind. No sovereign state, and by extension, no private entity, can claim sovereignty over any part of outer space. This principle highlights the collective responsibility to preserve outer space for the common good, exempting the cosmos from the possibility of private appropriation. 

The reason behind this precise and strong choice is to be found in the geopolitical landscape that brought to the promulgation of the Outer Space Treaty, cornerstone of the space law. In fact, in response to the escalating Cold War tensions and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the genesis of the Outer Space Treaty is intricately woven into the geopolitical dynamics of the two world blocs and the burgeoning space race between the two superpowers. As the geopolitical rivalry intensified, the two superpowers raced to achieve unprecedented milestones in space exploration, each vying for supremacy and technological superiority. In this charged atmosphere, concerns about the potential weaponization and militarization of outer space became increasingly prominent. The fear of an arms race extending into the cosmic realm prompted the need for a comprehensive and internationally binding agreement to ensure the peaceful and cooperative use of outer space. It was a strategic response to prevent the extension of earthly conflicts into the outer space, with which the UN aimed to foster international collaboration, promote the peaceful use of the cosmos, and prevent any single nation from dominating or exploiting the vast space resources.

It is important to note that, despite its undisputed significance, the Outer Space Treaty was adopted several decades ago. Consequently, many of the activities commonly undertaken in space today were unimaginable given the technological advancements of that era. Similarly, the entry of private entities into the space economy was still far from being a reality. This is a significant limitation determined by the changed and improved technical-scientific capabilities: while it is undisputed that the right of sovereignty over celestial bodies must remain excluded, it is necessary to question how to reconcile this limitation with the now concrete possibilities of economically exploiting space resources and, in a not-so-distant future, to start inhabiting the cosmos.

Yet, the aura of uncertainty enveloping private property rights casts a shadow on the boundless prospects of extensive space exploitation. As humanity’s cosmic endeavours unfold, the persistent question of who owns the stars and other celestial bodies serves as a compass guiding our deliberations in space law. The evolving dynamics of space exploration suggest an impending future where the judicious utilization of celestial resources and the legal framework that shall serve as the functioning basis of space settlements assume a central role in the continuous narrative of space law. This transition represents a pivotal chapter in our cosmic journey, emphasizing the imperative for meticulous legal frameworks to govern resource extraction and utilization, and to ensure a peaceful human presence in the cosmos. As a result, it will guarantee responsible and sustainable practices as humanity ventures further into the celestial expanse, and into its future as a space species.

This article is part of our dossier on Space. Other content:

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