Several websites in the United States are selling title deeds that purportedly grant the buyer ownership to frontier land on the moon.
For US$24.99 , Lunar Embassy in California sells a piece of parchment that proclaims the customer the owner of an acre (43,560 square feet) of lunar real estate. On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11's moon landing, the website is selling plots 10 miles from the landing site.
Lunar Embassy claims to have "sold" nearly 1 billion acres of lunar property, about 10 per cent of the moon's estimated surface area, for at least US$11 million since 1980. Business had been so good that the website's portfolio expanded to Mars, Venus, Mercury and the whole of Pluto " 4.67 billion miles from earth " for US$250,000.
"Buying property on the moon from a private company can only be a romantic transaction, or fun, and has absolutely no legal basis," said Kai-Uwe Schrogl, chief strategy officer of the European Space Agency, in an emailed comment. "The legal situation is based on Article 2 of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, ratified by far more than 100 states, which reads: "Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use of occupation, or by any other means"."
Therein lies a loophole, said Lunar Embassy's founder Dennis Hope, as individuals can claim lunar real estate where nations dare not tread. Hope, who also declared himself president of a non-existent "galactic government" established in 2004 by the fictitious "Declaration of Galactic Independence," said he was inspired by the US Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed applicants to acquire ownership of government land.
"We are the distribution vehicle, the mechanism by which all of humanity can acquire their equity share on these (celestial) bodies," said Lunar Embassy's chief executive officer Christopher Lamar. "Every person should have at least one acre equity, and therefore a voice, before governments and the mega-conglomerates attempt land grabs, excluding humanity from the individual personal property rights that were left intended through the very Treaty itself."
The practicalities of owning lunar real estate are confounding, even if contracts are enforceable and valid. The moon is uninhabitable, and the Apollo 11's journey in 1969 took four days to reach the celestial body.
The US remains the only country to have made a crewed landing on the moon in half a century. China's space agency landed a rover in January on the far side of the moon, and is aiming to land a human on the moon by 2029.
To top it all, there is no governing body that oversees and enforces contracts on the celestial body.
"I don't think many of (the buyers of lunar property) are taking it too seriously," said Zhao Yun, head of the Department of Law at the University of Hong Kong. "No one can really stay there. It is harmless fun."
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Several websites are taking advantage of this harmless fun. There is The Lunar Registry, which divides the moon into 14 districts from Bay of Rainbows to the Sea of Tranquillity " where Apollo 11's Eagle lunar module made its landing " selling deeds for US$20 an acre.
Then there's Lunar Land.com, which claims to be authorised by the non-existent International Association of Human Planetary Exploration. Citing loopholes identical to those described by Lunar Embassy's Hope, this website's offerings start from US$29.99 for an acre of lunar land, up to US$249.99 for 20 acres. The company also claims to sell real estate on Mars, Mercury, Venus and Jupiter's moon Io.
Luna Society International claims to be the moon's "official website," providing a "standardised system for legally registering land claims to select property on the moon" since 1999. The company does not sell lunar property, but registers land claims for a fee, and has registered 350,000 acres, said its administrator David Jackson.
"There have been several large tracts claimed by individuals and corporations in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore," Jackson said, adding that a large tract has an area of 250 or more contiguous acres. "Among institutional buyers, properties in the Sea of Rains, Mare Imbrium, Ocean of Storms or Oceanus Procellarum are most valued, as it is expected that China will target these locations first for the exploration and mining of rare earth metals."
Lunar Embassy even registered a branch in China in 2005, offering to sell lunar real estate for 298 yuan (US$37) an acre.
"The moon is the most popular because we can all see it, it is part of our daily life and culture," Lamar said. "Mars is the second most popular seller. It sells very well, especially with Elon (Musk) bringing it to the forefront," he said, referring to Tesla chief executive's plan to send cargo vessels to Mars by 2022.
Lunar Embassy did manage to sell certificates to 34 customers, proclaiming them owners of 49 acres of lunar land, according to its former Chinese chief executive Li Jie, before the Beijing business registrar shut the business down. The operation, deemed a form of "speculation" by the Chinese authorities, lasted two months, according to a China Daily report.
"People are probably thinking it's a bit of fun, because no one can really stay there on the moon," said The Hong Kong University's Zhao.
M. Matsushita, who works part time at a Shibuya cafe in Tokyo, is one such customer who is having a little bit of fun taking her beau to the moon.
Matsushita, who would only give her initial, said she paid about YEN10,000 (US$93) for two acres of the moon as a birthday gift for her boyfriend.
"It's romantic," she said. "He was very happy."
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