Can Countries Colonise Space and Call It Their Own ‘Land’?


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

The short answer is no. Countries are prohibited from claiming sovereignty over any celestial body by Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. However, humankind has a long tradition of ignoring silly little things like sovereignty and laws.

Whilst the Outer Space Treaty prevents countries from claiming sovereignty over any part of outer space, it says nothing about individuals and private companies claiming land for themselves and for profit. Colonisation by the private sector is not unheard of, with the East India Company ruling over large areas of India for a century until being ceded to the British Government in 1858.

This ‘loophole’ around private ownership was intended to be closed by the 1979 Moon Treaty, which also would have prevented the exploitation of natural resources. The treaty today is meaningless, only ever applying to the moon and being ratified by only five countries. It also failed to include the US, China, or Russia. The lack of ratification by the US is significant as this is where many of the influential private space exploration companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are based. Both companies have expressed interest in staying on the moon, Blue Origin with the ambition of shifting heavy industry to the moon, and what Elon Musk dubbed ‘Moon Base Alpha.’ With supposedly nothing prohibiting private ownership of the moon, there are numerous online vendors selling plots of land on the moon, although as Virgin Experience Days clarifies in bold, they ‘make no guarantees about the legal ownership of the moon.’

More recent treaties on space such as the 2020 Artemis Accords continue to attempt to ensure and clarify the access of private companies to outer space. Being focused on the Moon, Mars, comets, and asteroids, it allows for the extraction and recovery of their resources, along with an agreement that their exploitation does not violate Article II of the Outer Space Treaty. This treaty too suffers from a lack of adoption with only twelve member states, not including Russia or China. It does however point us towards what is becoming the other goal of space exploration, which is natural resources. For example, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to visit the asteroid 16 Psyche in 2022, an object valued at $10,000 quadrillion. The world economy is valued at only $80.27 trillion.

Whether it be the land on which our moon base sits or the asteroid we wish to mine for near-infinite resources, more robust rules about sovereignty and ownership are needed if there are going to be competing national and corporate interests. The safety zones of the Artemis Accords which are intended to exist around installations and operations have been criticised by Russia as a means of making de facto territorial claims to the moon. This should be seen as a step in the right direction as rules provide a means to manage these competing interests, and should be preferable to anarchy. We have rules governing behaviour and claims of sovereignty to uninhabited spaces on earth like Antarctica and the sea, so why not in space too?


3rd year International Relations student and a presenter of In Case You Forgot on Surge radio.

Leave A Reply