Bishop & Sewell

As arguments grow about who legally owns the rights to mine precious minerals from the Moon, here on Earth our dilemmas are intensifying, since it appears that it is also physically drifting away from Earth, writes Thom Wilkinson, a Partner in our Property and Environmental Law team.

A study by a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison focused on rock from a formation aged 90 million years’ old. By doing so, they were able to analyse the Earth’s interactions with the Moon 1.4 billion years ago.

It turns out that the Moon is moving away from Earth at 3.82 centimetres a year. That means that, eventually, a day on Earth will last 25 hours, in 200 million years time.

This isn’t all that’s changing everything we thought we knew about our planet’s relationship with its only natural satellite.

China’s recent successful moon landing, on the dark, far side of the Moon, has also revealed new uncovered hidden structures which will help astrogeologists better understand the Moon’s past.

However, it is the Moon’s present legal status that has the potential to cause economics-inspired territorial disputes, as the US, China, Russia and Japan battle it out in a new space race. When Neil Armstrong first planted the American flag on the Moon, it did rather look as if he was staking the US’s claim.

The United Nations Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967 and lays out the basic principles of how humans can operate on the moon. Its articles state:

  • Space exploration shall be for the benefit of all countries.
  • Outer space is not subject to claims of national sovereignty.
  • States must follow international law in space.
  • States must not put nuclear weapons or other WMDs in space.
  • Astronauts should be treated as envoys of all humanity.
  • States are responsible for national activities in space.
  • States are liable for damage to other states space objects.
  • States have jurisdiction over what they put in space.
  • States should be guided by principles of cooperation.
  • States should be able to observe launches.
  • The UN and public should be informed about space activity.
  • Stations and bases should be open to representatives of other states.
  • Intergovernmental activities are also controlled by the treaty.
  • The treaty is open to all states.
  • The treaty can be amended.
  • States may leave the treaty.
  • Copies of this treaty shall be kept in governmental archives.

Currently then, the Moon and other celestial bodies are governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST). Signed two years before America would land on the Moon, these laws were signed to make sure that no one had the upper hand on the ‘appropriation’ of the moon or other celestial bodies.

What the OST essentially declares is that there is no court to go to which would enforce a claim to own part of the Moon.

All of the 400,000 lbs of landers, probes, and Moon buggies that have been abandoned on its surface still belong to the nation which sent them there.

In theory, if a state were to build a permanent settlement on the Moon this could mean that whatever they built would be their property.

If being able to build a permanent structure feels a lot like ownership, then the issue only becomes more complicated when factoring in the Moon’s resources.

Why is this growing as an issue? It is estimated that the Moon might contain hundreds of billions of pounds of untapped resources waiting beneath the surface.

Crucially, these resources include the rare Earth metals needed to keep building advanced electronics. So, if you thought that Just Stop Oil (on Earth) has created an environmental furore, that will be as nothing when the ethics of exploiting the Moon’s natural resources become a reality. With five nations now having successfully landed lunar craft on the Moon’s surface, the pressure is building on who will start mining there first.

A hybrid of Aviation Law, Space Law is now taught in several Masters courses around the world. To my knowledge Environmental legal professionals in the UK have yet to start writing any papers on mining rights on the Moon. But surely, that will change soon?

Watch this space.


Contact our Environmental Law expert

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article, please do get in contact, quoting ref CB477. Thom Wilkinson is a Partner specialising in Property and Environmental Law and is contactable on: +44 (0)20 7692 7581 or

The above is accurate as at 17 June 2024. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.

The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Category: Blog, News | Date: 17th Jun 2024

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