When China's Jade Rabbit rover touched down on the Moon last month, it marked the first soft lunar landing in nearly four decades, following much earlier arrivals by the United States and the former Soviet Union.
It also raised the question: Who owns the place?
The answer for now: No one, in part because the United Nations's 1967 Outer Space Treaty prevents any sovereign state from laying claim. But that was signed long before the days of private space companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX or Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin; before little Elon or Jeff had yet to precociously mutter, "Mommy, when I grow up, I'm going to form my own firm to compete against NASA."
It could be time to rethink the issue, especially now that a top Chinese scientist has declared that the Moon could be a "beautiful" source of minerals and energy.
Professor of planetary science Ian Crawford from the University of London says that while the 47-year-old international agreement is "an adequate foundation" for 2014 lunar exploration, it could be ripe for change.
"There is a strong case for developing international law in this area because in 1967 it was not envisaged that anyone other than nation states would be able to explore the Moon," he said in a recent radio interview on the BBC (audio link may expire after Jan. 16). "Clearly that is is changing now, and there is a case for developing the Outer Space Treaty to include private organizations that may wish to exploit the Moon. Or before we start exploiting the Moon, space tourism is likely to happen, I think, before we start mining minerals on the Moon."
It will likely be decades before moon rocks are providing earthlings with valuable substances or commodities. But before that happens, you might hear the U.N.'s Moon department imploring its treaty staff: Get me rewrite!