US companies might be able to use the existing licensing process used for space launches to claim lunar territory, according to documents obtained by Reuters.
In a letter to Bigelow Airspace — a maker of inflatable space habitats — the Federal Aviation Agency says it intends to "leverage the FAA’s existing launch licensing authority to encourage private sector investments in space systems by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis."
That means that just by setting up a habitat, Bigelow would be able to claim exclusive rights to that territory. Furthermore, any company staking a claim could tap "related areas" for mining, exploration, and other activities.
Nothing is set in stone, however. George Nield, the FAA's associate administrator for the Office of Commercial Transportation, explains:
"We didn’t give (Bigelow Aerospace) a license to land on the Moon. We’re talking about a payload review that would potentially be part of a future launch license request. But it served a purpose of documenting a serious proposal for a US company to engage in this activity that has high-level policy implications."
Bigelow Aerospace plans to test one of its habitats on the International Space Station later this year, and has proposed free-flying versions that could be used by government agencies, research organizations, businesses, and tourists. The company's goal is to have a series of bases on the Moon by 2025. Founder Robert Bigelow told Reuters that the decision doesn’t imply actual ownership of the Moon. Instead, he says, it means "somebody else isn’t licensed to land on top of you or land on top of where exploration and prospecting activities are going on, which may be quite a distance from the lunar station."
The Outer Space Treaty says that no country has sovereignty over the Moon
The FAA oversees commercial space transportation in the US, but according to the report, the letter expands the agency's reach from just launch licensing to include US companies’ planned activities on the Moon. Right now that is the domain of the United Nations Outer Space treaty, which explicitly states that "outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." The Outer Space treaty also says that "the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes."
The letter was coordinated with US Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce, as well as NASA and "other agencies involved in space operations," according to Reuters.