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Managing Mars: Who Has a Right To It’s Resources?

Two scientists propose a method of divvying up Martian resources based on the concept of “Cooperative Sovereignty”

Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Humans have long been fascinated by the huge Cosmos above us. Perhaps this fascination has been best put to words by Carl Sagan in his influential book, Cosmos:

“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”

It is no wonder that contemplating our existence in relation to the Cosmos has continued ever since the first human stared up in amazement and curiosity of what might lie high above. Unsurprisingly, we have even tried to reach the planets and stars to search for life beyond our home.

As we learn more about our world and its inhabitants, we’ve learned that the Earth is our most valuable and finite resource. Perhaps as a reflection of this realization, colonization of space and expanding our home beyond Earth has been the stuff of science fiction for longer than space travel has existed. It may have stayed a fantasy if technological advances in the last decade hadn’t made it seem so possible.

Mars is the jewel of our current dreams. This is mainly due to a new and rapidly developing commercial space economy. Private companies, the most notable among them being SpaceX, is developing technology at an increasingly rapid rate. Reduced material costs have opened up access to space in new ways. As more companies enter the market, costs will surely decrease even more, and it will no longer just be the domain of government agencies. Scientists, travelers, and tourists will be able to share in the discoveries.

While this sounds very good at a first glance (who wouldn’t love a vacation on the Moon?), this is all very new territory legally and culturally, and it means there needs to be a well-planned framework for how we can keep space exploration fair.

In a paper published in 2016 in Space Policy, authors Sara Bruhns and Jacob Haqq-Misra attempt to figure out this framework and all the challenges it would face. Since the 1960’s, countries have competed and worked with each other under the Outer Space treaty for peaceful purposes. However effective this treaty might have been, It was a product of the Cold War and the idea of space being exploited for commercial purposes had not yet been considered.

Bruhns and Haqq-Misra point out that private sector ventures in space might not be consistent with the principles of this treaty. The treaty aims to prevent any one nation from claiming territories in space or profiting from celestial objects. Although profit currently comes from contracts to launch objects into space, there are companies that intend to mine minerals from celestial objects for profit. This is a situation where industry and technology have moved faster than policy.

In its present form and without the lack of any enforcement directive, there is nothing in the Outer Space Treaty that can stop a nation’s Public sector or private sector entities acting independently or by association with a nation from landing on Mars and gaining priority access to resources. The authors highlight this very real potential and look for an alternative or an update to the current treaty

The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) and the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) are policies currently in effect  which address the same dilemmas currently facing the Outer Space treaty.At first glance, it may seem like a bizarre comparison between the Seas, Antarctica, and Mars. However, the common theme among all these is how they are governed in cooperation between nations. No one government has claims on the seas or on Antarctica.

Both of these treaties emphasize on ‘Cooperative Sovereignty’ as a model of governance. As that name suggests, the governance of those areas is through mutual cooperation between countries. In fact, countries must follow this doctrine and trust other countries to follow it. Both these treaties have been quite successful in thwarting feuds among nations. But if two countries do not trust each other, then how is the treaty supposed to resolve their differences?

The authors did a comprehensive review and found two fundamental disadvantages of this style of governance. The first is a lack of a strong central authority which can decide on legal disputes and enforce doctrines. The second is that resources obtained must be shared by all players. For example, some countries might be willing to put in the effort and taxpayer dollars to make mining profitable, but sharing it with other countries will then not be fair to their own taxpayers. This is exactly the reason why we have not mined the sea floor and why the United States has not signed onto UNCLOS. Therefore, equitable resource sharing should be excluded from any Mars treaties.

Taking all the pros and cons into consideration, the authors also propose establishing Planetary Parks and Exclusive Economic Zones on Mars. Planetary Parks, as their name suggests, would be like national parks, preserving the environment as is. The Exclusive Economic Zones would be used for colonization. However, no country will be allowed to claim territory as its own. Once a country settles in a zone, it can govern that zone by its home laws, and use the space for scientific studies and mining. Other nations could use that zone if they follow the laws. In addition, the maximum size of an economic zone can be specified so that a large part of Mars can be preserved.

It is said that science fiction is a reflection of humanity’s tendency to ruminate on the future. Science fiction stories on colonization of planets have come a long way from Edward Rice Burroughs’ “Princess of Mars” to current stories like those shown by “The Expanse.” In “The Expanse,” humans have expanded beyond Earth’s boundaries to establish colonies on Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and on some of Saturn’s moons. The series subsequently shows the political and societal problems caused by this, which includes an armistice between Earth’s united government and Mars. In a way, that series shows us a picture of what problems a spacefaring society could face. The fact remains that humans have to think ahead. The plan outlined by the authors of this paper is a start, and it surely won’t be the end.

Study Information

Original study: A Pragmatic Approach to Sovereignty on Mars

Study was published on: November 2016

Study author(s): Jacob Haqq-Misra

The study was done at: Blue Marble Space Institute of Science

The study was funded by:

Raw data availability:

Featured image credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This summary was edited by: Osama Alian and Gina Riggio