Imagine you suddenly found yourself transported to a colony on Mars. Perhaps with the fictional astronaut Mark Watney, who’s stranded on the red planet in “The Martian.”
Would you get to vote for a colony leader? Would you have to obey a speed limit in your Mars rover? And if you wanted to settle there permanently, would you get property — and what would the immigration process look like?
Fugitive whistle blower Edward Snowden is already thinking about that last legal consideration:
The reality is that no one lives on Mars yet, but laws do exist that govern the world.
According to Article I of the United Nation’s Outer Space Treaty, the most important body of space law, international law applies on Mars:
Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.
And as of now, no state or person can lay claim to anything that’s not on Earth:
Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
So just because Neil Armstrong planted the American flag in lunar soil, that doesn’t mean the US owns the moon. And if someone lands on another planet, they couldn’t declare themselves its supreme ruler or the owner of any land.
Right now the moon, Mars, and every other planet fall under international law. In fact, the entire universe beyond Earth technically counts as international waters.
In “The Martian,” Watney gives a great (and hilarious) example of how international law would manifest on Mars. When he is inside a NASA-owned Mars habitat, US law applies. But as soon as he steps outside onto Martian soil, he’s in international waters.
At one point, Watney needs to use a NASA spacecraft called Ares 4. NASA hasn’t explicitly given him permission to climb aboard, and according to the UN Outer Space Treaty, you can’t lay claim to anything in space — so he must “commandeer” Ares 4, an action that will technically make him a pirate under international law. And not just any pirate:
“After I board Ares 4, before talking to NASA, I will take control of a craft in international waters without permission,” Watney says in the book. “That makes me a pirate! A space pirate!”
We’ll need a real legal system if we set up a colony on Mars or some other distant world. Writing new laws is already a complicated process, but writing them for an inhospitable, alien world like Mars maybe be even harder. How much freedom can someone expect to have on a planet with no breathable air or protection from radiation? Compliance with certain rules could mean the difference between life or death.
Right now, a radical leader or group could seize power on Mars with relative ease. All they’d need to do is horde all the oxygen, collect all the water reclaimers, or steal the keys to all the spaceships and hold everyone hostage. Colonists would have to surrender their freedom if they wanted to survive.
In anticipation of humanity’s spread to the stars, an annual International Extraterrestrial Liberty Conference is already trying to solve these and other scenarios. The group of astrobiologists, planetary scientists, and legal experts are scouring existing constitutions, pulling the pieces that work the best, and drafting ideas for space-specific laws. Chief among them: the right to oxygen and the right to leave a planet at any time.
This year’s conference focused on how to overthrow a Martian dictatorship, should one ever arise in the future.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
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