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The final frontier

The final frontier NASA/Johnson Space Center
24 Sep
The US government has given permission for the first private company to land unmanned vehicles on the moon, with the intention of mining its resources. But could the move have geopolitical consequences?

Moon Express, an American start-up company, made history last month when it became the first commercial entity to be granted permission from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make a landing on the Moon. With a launch planned for late 2017, the company hopes to put an unmanned craft on the lunar surface.

The plans put Moon Express in a good position to win the Lunar XPRIZE, a race devised by Google that will award $20million to the first successful commercial landing. Sixteen private companies from countries including India, Israel and Japan are also competing. Because the long-term objective of these start-ups is to unlock the Moon’s mining resources, Moon Express’s success with the FAA has raised fundamental questions about business beyond the atmosphere. ‘Mining on the Moon is very foreseeable, it is not just science fiction anymore,’ says Dr Saskia Vermeylen, senior lecturer in property theory at the University of Strathclyde.

In the absence of legislation, the US has unilaterally granted access to the Moon and its resources

Technically, no one owns the Moon. The 1968 Outer Space Treaty prevents sovereign states from claiming ownership of land outside Earth, however ‘its language is less clear about whether or not resources could be extracted and sold,’ says Vermeylen. Last year, President Obama signed an Act allowing US space companies to own, use and sell resources obtained from other celestial bodies, so long as they are in compliance with international law. ‘In the absence of adequate legislation, the US has unilaterally granted access to the Moon and its resources,’ says Vermeylen, pointing out that, as all 16 companies in the race will need permission from their own governments to launch, it will be ‘interesting to see if other countries contest the legality of US actions or simply follow suit.’

This was published in the October 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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