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A Quick Guide to Owning the Universe

If someone tries to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, you know it's a hoax. But what about a meteorite, moon or star?

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nasa universe photos

Universe photos

What bits of the universe are legal to own? (credit: NASA)

If someone tries to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, you know it’s a hoax. But what about a meteorite, moon or star? Here’s a quick guide to owning anything with origins outside the Earth:

Lunar Property: The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits nations from claiming property rights on the Moon or anywhere else in space (including planets, asteroids, comets and anything else you can think of). Dennis Hope, a Nevada entrepreneur, thinks that the treaty has a loophole, however, and doesn’t prohibit a person—who, after all, is not a nation—from claiming rights to extra-terrestrial objects. And so he claimed the Moon in 1980, later set up the Lunar Embassy, complete with its own government, and started selling. An acre of “prime” lunar property goes for $19.99 (plus $1.51 in tax, $12.50 shipping and handling and an extra $2.50 if you want your name printed on the deed). Good luck trying to claim that land, though.

Lunar Resources: A 1979 treaty set out guidelines for managing the Moon’s natural resources, though hardly anyone signed that agreement. That’s not a problem for now, but it does present an extra layer of uncertainty on any future plans to colonize our nearest neighbor.

Moon Rocks: These might seem to be an obtainable way to own a bit of Earth’s biggest satellite, but you’d be out of luck. NASA owns every bit of the 840 pounds of the stuff that Apollo astronauts brought back to Earth from 1969 to 1972. Scientists can request bits of lunar material to study, but it’s illegal to own or sell any of it. Those who can afford to buy a piece of space history, however, might get a tiny bit of Moon dust if they buy an object used by one of the Apollo astronauts.

Meteorites: In the United States, meteorites belong to whoever owns the property where it lands (although that’s not always straightforward), and then they can be sold or donated wherever the owner likes. Most meteorites originate in the solar system’s Asteroid Belt, but some come from the Moon or Mars, making meteorites the easiest way to own a bit of those faraway places.

Stars: Stars and other astronomical objects have strict naming conventions overseen by the International Astronomical Union (which means that there’s far less fun in these names than in naming critters and plants). That hasn’t stopped any number of companies from selling stars, though. But, as the IAU notes, all you really get is “an expensive piece of paper and a temporary feeling of happiness, like if you take a cup of tea instead of the Doctor’s recommended medicine.”

Scientists have access to other bits of the universe, too, such as a sample of asteroid collected by the Japanese Haybusa mission or pieces of comet brought back by NASA’s Stardust. But for the rest of us, we’ll just have to make do with visiting a museum.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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