On Nov. 26, 2018, NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars, becoming the eighth space-exploring robot to visit the Red Planet. For adventurous humans inspired to eventually follow in the footsteps of this spacecraft, possibly terraforming Mars or owning land there may seem like the next best thing. A handful of companies, such as Buy Mars and Lunar Embassy, sell ads on Facebook and elsewhere claiming they “possess a legal trademark and copyright for the sale of extraterrestrial property” or are the “only recognized world authority” for the sale of lunar and planetary real estate. Deeds sell between $30 and $500. While it may be true that colonizing Mars is on the horizon, can anyone really own property on Mars?
How Valid Is a Mars Land Deed?
Like all real estate transactions, it comes down to the law. The foundational law for space was drafted 50 years ago, when space exploration was still in its infancy. In 1967, the United States, the then–Soviet Union and the United Kingdom wrote the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” Nicknamed the “Outer Space Treaty,” the document established guidelines to ensure equal and peaceful access to space. More than 100 nations signed it. It accounts for real estate in space, among other things. Article II of the Outer Space Treaty states, “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.” In short, nobody can claim ownership of Mars or land on Mars, or do so with any other celestial body.
But the treaty was made to be modified as society advanced. In 2015, the United States Congress passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015, or SPACE Act, which allows U.S. citizens to “possess, own, transport, use and sell” materials extracted from celestial bodies, reported Nature. The new law accounts for the growing interest in mining asteroids, the moon or other celestial bodies for minerals or other resources. Private companies will be able to set up shop on Mars, mine it and lay claim to those resources, but won’t be able to own the land.
For those who really want a Mars land deed with their name on it, there’s nothing wrong with buying one. It’s a novelty item that might make a nice gift for the person who has everything. But it’s just for fun. The document won’t be recognized by any government authority as legitimate or legally binding.
A Mars Colony Is Coming
Even as the Mars InSight lander begins to gather scientific data from the Red Planet to better inform the potential for human survival there, Earthlings are making plans to colonize Mars. In December 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Space Policy Directive-1, which refocused America’s space program on human exploration. The plan involves returning humans to the moon, establishing a means for traveling to Mars by the 2030s and eventually expanding human presence across the solar system later in the century.
Getting beyond the moon will require advanced rocket propulsion to speed astronauts to their destination. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is building the boosters for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, designed to take humans beyond Earth orbit. In 2020, the rockets will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to the lunar vicinity as part of Exploration Mission-1. The mission will be step one in a series of increasingly complex missions that will work like stepping stones to lead humans into deep space.
Others are shooting for Mars, too. Mars One, a venture launched by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, says they aim to have humans on Mars by 2031.
When Will Humans Begin Terraforming Mars?
A hundred years from now, humans may be thriving on Mars. But they’ll likely be conducting their lives under the confines of a transparent dome akin to a large terrarium. Climate, temperature and atmosphere will be controlled, and humans will be able to grow plants for food. Terraforming Mars — that is, manipulating the atmosphere to create an Earth-like, habitable environment — is simply not possible using any of the technology available to humans, according to NASA. Scientists have proposed large-scale geo-engineering projects, such as releasing carbon dioxide trapped in the Martian soil to create a thicker atmosphere that warms the planet. But recent studies have shown that there isn’t enough CO2 in the soil. The atmospheric pressure on Mars is also less than 1 percent of that on Earth. If, somehow, scientists could figure out how to warm the skies and get them to rain, the water would evaporate quickly.
For now, humans will have to be satisfied with standing on planet Earth and gazing up at the red dot in the sky. Over the ages, that dot has inspired humanity to imagine an existence beyond the heavens. The potential for extraterrestrial life, colonization and terraformation calls to civilization and soon, we will make our way into space. We’ve taken the first steps by sending machines ahead of us. In fact, Mars is the only planet in the solar system inhabited by robots. Perhaps, one day soon, we will join them.