With commercial space rapidly transitioning from science fiction to objective reality, some are starting to wonder about the right to own and control property, the very basis of free market capitalism. The outer space treaty prohibits declarations of national sovereignty of territory on other worlds, according to Article II. But Fraser Cain, writing for Universe Today, thinks that the treaty can be stretched to handle commercial operations up to a point.

Owning mineral rights, not land

Companies like Moon Express cannot own land on the moon, and Planetary Resources cannot possess an asteroid.

But thanks to the Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act of 2015, these companies can own the minerals they extract from the moon or an asteroid. Article VI placed such companies under the supervision of nations from which they operate. Article VII makes any other party that damages or interferes with a commercial operation on the moon or an asteroid legally liable. The sponsoring country would be able to help enforce such claims.

What about colonies on Mars?

Elon Musk of SpaceX desires to build a colony on Mars. He has proposed to build giant rockets that would take 100 people at a time on one-way trips to the Red Planet to slowly build a self-sufficient city of a million inhabitants. But then how the city if governed gets interesting.

Cain suggests that according to Article VI, Musk’s city on Mars would be governed by United States law, though presumably, it would be able to set up its own municipal government. However, the parts of Mars beyond the colony would be international territory where the rule of law would be murkier. The Chinese Mars colony a distance away would be governed by Chinese law.

Inhabitants of The Chinese colony would be freely allowed to visit Musk’s Mars city at will under Article XII. The citizens of the Musk Mars colony would be legally obligated to assist in the rescue of visitors or other Martian colonists as needed under Article V.

Declaration of Independence

A Mars colony such as the one Elon Musk would be able to get out from under the dictates of the Outer Space Treaty if it declares its independence and becomes a sovereign country.

Presumably, this act would be undertaken once the colony becomes self-sufficient. Also, the sponsoring country would not be silly enough to emulate King George III and try to resist such a declaration. Then the Mars colony becomes a sovereign state that is not a party to the Outer Space Treaty and can make its own diplomatic arrangements with Earth nations.