Who Owns Mars? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Can anyone own a planet? Humanity has had its sights set on Mars for a long time... But what happens when we finally get to the Red Planet? We often talk of colonising the solar system for ourselves, but do we really have the right to do so? In this video, Unveiled unpicks the Outer Space Treaty to discover who (if anyone?) can claim ownership of Mars... And whether those novelty "space deeds" you got for your birthday one time will ever hold up in court!

Who Owns Mars?

More than 500 people have now been to space, travelling into orbit, going all the way to the ISS, or even as far as the other side of the moon. But these astronauts have never tried to claim the extra-terrestrial landscapes they’ve visited. As humans today set their sights on Mars, with aims to build colonies and habitats, it makes you wonder whether we actually have a right to do so?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; Who owns Mars?

In a different life, there’s an obvious answer to this question; the Martians own Mars! But there’s one big problem there because we’re yet to prove that Martians of any kind exist. Where space ethics are concerned though, even if only microbial life was one day discovered on the Red Planet, it might be deemed unethical for humans to go to Mars and interfere with their ecosystem. But it’s a tricky issue with or without the presence of extraterrestrial life. For example, you probably wouldn’t consider the Earth to be the property of humans. For a hypothetical, objective outsider looking in, there are so many other lifeforms here and we’re vastly outnumbered… and even if it was just us, the idea of outright “owning” our planet is still a little odd, let alone owning one that we don’t even reside on. Nevertheless, it is an idea that’s been thrown around before by people in power.

Back when mankind first set its sights on actually travelling to other worlds, who should or shouldn’t be able to build in space (and what they were or weren’t allowed to put there), was decided by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Officially, it has the not exactly snappy title, the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”. It was laid out by the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, and since then has gained 109 parties and an additional 23 signatories. In a nutshell, this lengthy piece of legislation (written at the height of the Cold War) sets down important rules banning the detonation, testing or placement of nuclear weapons anywhere outside of Earth’s atmosphere. But the bit we’re most interested in is where it stipulates that space is for everyone and has to be used to the benefit of all mankind. This means that, right now, no nation is legally allowed to claim territory anywhere in space, including on Mars. Either space doesn’t belong to anybody at all, or it belongs to all of us equally.

However, any resources a country collects in space they can claim ownership of. If somebody were to set up a mining rig on the Moon to harvest polar ice, for instance, they’d own the water they gathered, but they still wouldn’t ever own the land they were mining. Similarly, if a country launches something into space, they still own whatever that something is. So satellites, space probes, shuttles and so on don’t automatically become the property of everyone once they’re launched into orbit or beyond; Something like the Curiosity Rover will always belong to NASA and the US. All of which means that even if a country builds and populates an entire city on Mars one day, unless the law changes, they’d own whatever they built but still wouldn’t be entitled to the land they built it on. It’s similar to the rules on international waters; you could build and own a rig on the High Seas, but you can’t own the actual water that rig is built above.

But, despite the clear laws detailing outer space territory, outer space real estate is still a thriving venture. There are a host of companies selling deeds to plots of land, say an acre in size, on all sorts of celestial bodies; on the Moon, Mars and even Venus. While it’s true that most who buy the deeds aren’t actually planning to build on the moon – they’re usually given as fun novelty gifts - whether or not “space deeds” are a scam is debateable. The businesses themselves could argue that they’re simply using a loophole because although the Outer Space Treaty says that no nation can own land in space, it doesn’t specifically say that no private company can… But, even so, these types of claims to Martian or any other type of outer space land are not recognised by any established space administration, and they’re not widely expected to hold up in a court of law.

Large-scale private ownership is an issue that could well reach the courts one day, though. Big brands like SpaceX, Boeing, Virgin, and Blue Origin are all vying to go to distant celestial bodies while, in 2016, Moon Express became the first private company to gain permission from the US government to go to the moon, as part of their bid to land the Google Lunar X Prize. The Moon Express project eventually fell short of its goals, but the precedent has now been set for companies in the future liaising with governments to reset the rules of space. Perhaps something like Blue Origin will one day be powerful enough to lobby to get the laws on space territory changed, though it would still be Jeff Bezos versus at least the 109 countries on the Outer Space Treaty… Even the founder of Amazon would have his work cut out!

The prospect of letting private companies run rampant in space perhaps isn’t for everyone. There are plenty that argue that space should continue to be explored and utilised carefully with all of mankind’s best interests at heart… but not everyone shares this opinion. Alan Wasser, the chairman of the Space Settlement Institute, has suggested that letting private companies into space would actually encourage growth and could trigger faster development and implementation of space travel tech. Advocates for private ownership have previously proposed a structure like Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the US, where The London Company was put in charge and ferried labourers over from Europe. Anyone concerned with space ethics might have a thing or two to say about this idea, though… not least because of how many people died during the formative years of Jamestown, but also because those colonists proceeded to take as much land as possible and were ultimately responsible for the Native American Genocide. In this way, adopting a similar kind of attitude toward expanding out into the solar system perhaps isn’t the way forward. It could lead companies to believe they have a justifiable claim over alien landscapes just on the merit of “being there”.

If Martians do exist in any form, even if they’re simply microbes and bacteria rather than fully-fledged, complex beings, then even attempting to claim ownership of the land they occupy could be seen as morally wrong. And, if it remarkably turns out that there is an intelligent Martian race, we would surely have to abandon our plans to go to Mars - or at least rethink them so that we don’t appear as aggressive invaders.

For as long as the situation remains as it is now, though, there will always be interest in effectively dividing up the Red Planet between whichever governments or companies manage to get there. But that interest shouldn’t, under current law, transpire into action. It’s been held for decades that space is for everybody and nobody can claim the land out there; it’s to be used for the good of humanity as a whole and not for exploitation or private gain. And that’s why nobody owns Mars.