My story starts as many weird tales begin: a stranger messaged me on Twitter.
“Would you like to own luxury acres of land on planet Ceres inc. mineral rights?” they asked. Would I? Should I?
Even the most gullible of Internet users would be skeptical, for a few reasons. The pitch came from @ExplasoPlanets, a sparsely-followed new account with testimonials that are suspect at best:
Plus, the man behind @ExplasoPlanets—21-year-old Isaac Mufumbira—said that if I bought part of Ceres, I would “join the high class individuals who already do” own land on the dwarf planet, “like The Queen of England.” As much as I would like to think that her highness is investing in interstellar property, I highly doubt she is. I also find it especially hard to believe that she would do business with a company that jokes about the royal lineage on Twitter:
Still, I was intrigued. @ExplasoPlanets may have been trying to pull one over on me, but the concept of space as an unmined source of valuable resources, like water, platinum, and other rare metals, is legitimate.
Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company that has collaborated with NASA, sees space as analogous to the West during 19th century American expansion. Apparently, it's our manifest destiny to lay claim to the dwarf planet Ceres, too.
Planetary Resources operates with Congress’ blessing—in the form of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act—to try to figure out how get rich off the cosmos without violating the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which stipulates that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
Owning and profiting off interstellar objects, in other words, is very much a part of the national conversation, and has been for several years. That doesn’t mean all the kinks have been worked out: Some suspect that Congress’ 2015 Space Act, in encouraging the privatization of outer space resources, is pushing the boundaries of the 1960s-era treaty.
But now that the reality of deep space exploration is upon us, the broad strokes legislation of 1967 is open for debate. Some of the controversy surrounding the new legislation turns, in part, on whether or not asteroids (which contain some of the aforementioned resources) are considered to be "celestial bodies." If they're not, they wouldn't even be subject to the Outer Space Treaty. It's also not clear whether extracting resources from asteroids and other space rocks counts as appropriation.
Plus, as space law expert Ricky Lee explained to the CBC, people are arguably already profiting from outer space through satellites. "The idea that commercial use of space resources is prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty… is quite simply absurd," he said.
So an invitation to buy luxury land on Ceres is not as outlandish as it sounds. In its own way, Explaso Planets is also trying to work within the confines of the Outer Space Treaty. And it's not the first.
So far, the question of moon ownership has been largely moot for anyone who has a shot of actually getting to the moon, leaving the field pretty much open for people like Dennis Hope.
Mufumbira’s Ceres-selling plan draws inspiration from Hope's Lunar Embassy, in most respects the father of space real estate scams. Lunar Embassy's been operating since 1980, when Hope declared ownership of the moon and some planets by sending a declaration of ownership to the United Nations. Because he didn’t hear back from the UN, he assumed that they had tacitly approved his status as owner of the moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus and Io, a moon of Jupiter.
If you try to buy moon plots online, you’ll likely end up on Lunar Embassy, or a Lunar Embassy-owned site: Lunar Land touts a “team of professionals” who are “premier authorized agents of the Lunar Embassy.” Moon Estates “are authorised by the Lunar Embassy for the sale of extraterrestrial property, and all purchases are registered on their central database.” Even Buy Mars just links to Lunar Embassy.
The sites that aren't linked to Lunar Embassy appear to be in direct competition with Hope.
Luna Society International, for example, is also in business of peddling moon plots. In a post on its site Lunar Registry, it poses the question: Who really owns the moon? Their answer comes in two parts: First, it’s not Dennis Hope:
No single person owns the Moon, regardless of whether that person sent a letter to the President of the United States or the Secretary-General of the United Nations. And just because the U.S. or U.N. never responded to this person's letter, that does not mean that he automatically became the owner of the Moon and the other planets. Check with any attorney and they'll confirm for you that thisisn't the way the law works in any country on Earth. In fact, Dennis Hope of the Lunar Embassy has fabricated a fictional tale in which a vision came to him, and led him to register a claim to owning the Moon in 1980.
Second, they say, if anybody can sell the moon, it’s us:
Luna Society International, a publicly registered International Business Company, offers land claims to selected properties on the Moon in compliance with the Lunar Settlement Initiative, under which at least 95% of all funds raised must go directly to support a privatized program for settlement and development of the Moon. We don't claim to own the Moon… We are offering a legal means for private citizens and commercial enterprises to purchase Lunar real estate, along with a realistic program for the eventual settlement and development of that property.
Most of the websites I’ve seen offer what Lunar Embassy does: A plot on the moon or any other planet, to be redeemed upon your arrival on the moon or said planet, and a digital or physical deed. Some places send over a map, or some other novelty item, like a coaster or CD-ROM.
Explaso Planets is no different. When I spoke to Mufumbira over Skype, he told me that he learned about Hope and Lunar Embassy during a marketing seminar hosted by Simon Coulson, a self-described "UK Internet Marketing Coach." Coulson mentioned Lunar Embassy during a session, and Mufumbira saw an opportunity. He claimed ownership of "outer space," sent a note to the UN, and set up Explaso Planets. Now, he's selling land on Ceres at £49.99 an acre.
How Hope lays claim to the moon and other planets is a matter of interpretive reading of the law: he argues that because the Outer Space Treaty does not explicitly bar individuals from taking ownership of celestial bodies, outer space was fair game for individuals. Because he is person and not a nation, he says, there’s no problem with him taking ownership of the moon. And he’s spent the past few decades selling deeds to lunar lots with, according to him, just a handful of complaints from his customers.
Experts, however, say that what Hope is reading as a loophole is… not a loophole. Tanja Masson-Zwaan, Deputy Director of the International Institute of Air & Space Law, told National Geographic flat-out in 2009 that “what Lunar Embassy is doing does not give people buying pieces of paper the right to ownership of the moon.” That said, Hope can't even claim the moon by his own standards. If you could own the moon by declaring it yours, Hope would be stepping on the toes of a number of people who preceded his assertion, some by hundreds of years.
In 2013, The New York Times published a short documentary on the Lunar Embassy.
At this point, nobody "owns" the moon—and any individual claims to outer space bodies have been dismissed. In 2005, Gregory W. Nemitz claimed ownership of an asteroid and attempted to charge NASA $20 (plus late fees) for landing a spaceship on the rock. His case was summarily thrown out by U.S. courts.
It’s likely, however, that the question of lunar ownership will be taken more seriously in the coming years, as commercial interest in outer space increases. As planetary science professor Ian Crawford told BBC Radio in 2014, “there is a strong case for developing international law in this area because in 1967 it was not envisaged that anyone other than nation states would be able to explore the moon… clearly that is changing now and there is a case for developing the Outer Space Treaty to include private organisations that may wish to exploit the moon.”
It’s a little hard to tell if Hope and his followers are attempting to scam gullible buyers, or inviting them to join in their futuristic delusions. The Lunar Land site points out that property on the moon is “an excellent gift, a potential prudent investment, and an interesting and great conversation piece.”
If you’re willing to spend around $24.00 on a lunar deed, you probably won't be disappointed—if Hope does not believe he is the owner of the moon, he is certainly committed to the farce. He penned a "Declaration of Galactic Independence" that runs around 100 pages, and includes rousing phrases like, "As a strong learned group of highly developed individuals with a desire and compulsion to reach beyond our Earth limitations, we commit our energies and resources to developing a way of life, sharing freedom and equality with all." He says his new colony will operate under something called the Galactic Government.
Whether he's fooling customers or bringing them in on the joke, if Hope is making as much as he says he is off the sales—$11 million in revenue as of 2013—he's laughing all the way to the bank.
Mufumbira sounded serious when we spoke, but he broke out into a chuckle at one point—whether from nerves or from the thought that he might be pulling this off, I don't know.
It's possible that one day private citizens will be able to legally buy and profit from outer space resources. For now, I recommend keeping your wallet closed.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.