The Sciences

You can't own the Sun. No. Not yours.

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitNov 30, 2010 12:00 PM


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Angeles Duran is a woman in Spain who claims to own the Sun.

I mean that literally. She says in no uncertain terms that she has laid claim to the Sun, the nearest star, the provider of light and heat to the solar system. As her claim states, she is:

...owner of the Sun, a star of spectral type G2, located in the centre of the solar system, located at an average distance from Earth of about 149,600,000 kilometres.

OK then. But is her claim legit? She certainly thinks so*. As she says,

"There was no snag, I backed my claim legally, I am not stupid, I know the law. I did it but anyone else could have done it, it simply occurred to me first."

Well, she may not be stupid, but she's quite wrong: her claim is not backed legally, and she does not know the law. Then again, neither do I -- I may be pretty familiar with space, but my corpus is something less than delicti -- so I contacted Joanne Gabrynowicz, who is the director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, at Ole Miss (which also hosts a research blog on space law and publishes the Journal of Space Law), and also a research professor of law with almost 25 years experience in space law. "In my professional opinion, at this time the emerging international opinion is that individuals cannot claim celestial bodies," she told me. This is based on The Outer Space Treaty, a legally binding document originally forged in 1967, but which has now been signed by nearly 100 countries. The treaty is actually quite clear that no sovereign nation can own celestial bodies like the Moon or Sun.

However, some people have figured that leaves them a loophole; they claim the Treaty is silent about individuals owning cosmic property. Technically, this is true -- the Treaty neither prohibits nor allows individuals to claim ownership of moons or planets. In the case of Ms. Duran, she says that simply making the claim is therefore sufficient to ensure her ownership of the Sun. In the past, a guy named Dennis Hope made the same claim -- he sent letters to the government basically saying that if they don't reply, they are giving tacit permission for him to claim the Moon. Not surprisingly, the government ignored him, so Hope now says he owns the Moon. He even took it farther, having sold deeds to property on the Moon... and he's not going broke, having made millions doing this. At least. The thing is, according to Professor Gabrynowicz, their claims of actual ownership don't hold any water. She pointed out that international law is based on practice and opinion -- how nations behave and what they say about a legal issue. And some of them have said no individuals can own space. In fact, in Canada one lunar property seller was found guilty of fraud and thrown in jail. Any country that has signed the Treaty can make such arrests, though that's up to the country in question. I'll note that Spain, the country in which the Sun claimant resides, has signed the Treaty. [You can see what other countries have signed the treaty here]. Moreover, the Treaty has several Articles outlining its provisions, and Article VI states:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization.

[Emphasis mine]

So as you can see, the Treaty makes it clear that the countries which sign the Treaty must authorize and supervise any activities, even by individuals, when it comes to space. In practical terms, that means in the U.S. you have to get a license from the government to build a rocket and launch it into space. It's up to the individual country on how it should deal with this, but it can easily be interpreted to mean that the respective government has to have an active hand in supervising someone who wants to own property. An individual sending a letter saying "If I don't hear from you then I own the Universe" clearly doesn't quite make the cut. Heck, as Prof. Gabrynowicz pointed out to me, just making a claim like that doesn't even work to stake a claim of ownership of land on Earth. Well-established international law only recognizes nations, not individual persons. You may remember back in 2007 when a Russian submarine expedition tried to claim part of the sea floor for Russia; the international uproar was pretty fierce. You can imagine how everyone would feel if a country tried to claim ownership of the Sun.

So, in a nutshell: a) Ms. Duran's claim is without merit; 2) even if it had merit the Spanish government would have to actively have supported it, which it didn't; and γ) they won't support it because if they did the full weight of every other country on the planet would bear down on them since other Treaty-signing countries have already established they don't support nonsense like this. So, all in all, I think it's clear that anyone who claims to own the Moon, the Sun, or any other object in the heavens is wrong. And if they're trying to sell you a piece of it, well, it may not actually be fraud, but it's certainly not legally binding. I almost wish it were, though. Imagine Ms. Duran actually owned the Sun. She doesn't have a disclaimer posted on it, so anyone developing skin cancer or even a sunburn could sue her. And I imagine NASA or any other space agency would sue her as well if one of their multi-billion dollar satellites were disabled due to a solar flare from Ms. Duran's property. If they did, I hope she'd get good representation. She'd certainly need a star lawyer.

Picture credit: flag image from Magnus A. Sun imagse: NASA/ESA/SOHO, SDO. Moon: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

^* It's unclear if she claims Sol ownership, however. ^† The times, they are a'changing, though. Several private space companies are popping up, and it may not be too long before this issue becomes far more real. "This is the first time in 25 years I've seen credible actors come up," Prof. Gabrynowicz told me. "They've put their own money up, and are developing technology." Far from making facile claims, these companies may be making enough headway into developing space that governments will need to take this more seriously... even if individuals don't.

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