You might remember the other day we brought you news that a US company had been given permission to send a spacecraft to the Moon. This led to a lot of questions from you about why a company needs such approval in the first place. Can’t they just go? Let’s explain.
The company in question is Moon Express, which is trying to win a competition to land on the Moon called the Google Lunar XPRIZE. They are planning to launch their lander, called the MX-1E, on a rocket developed by a company called Rocket Lab next year.
However, to be allowed to undertake a launch, you need to get approval from the appropriate regulatory body, no matter what country you are in. In the US, launch and re-entry approval comes from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). If you launch without permission, you’d be fined up to $100,000, with other penalties imposed the longer your mission went on.
We must stress here that the FAA did not give approval for Moon Express to land on the Moon. Rather, they gave tentative approval for the payload to launch, known as a payload review. As a spokesperson for the FAA told us, it is the “first approval for a payload to go beyond Earth orbit.” In fact, the FAA has licensed more than 250 launches since 1989. During the launch, Moon Express will also require certain frequencies to transmit on, approval for which also comes from the FAA.
Where things get a bit more confusing is regarding actually landing on the Moon. You might have heard of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, an agreement from more than 100 countries that governs space. It basically states that any entity, governmental or otherwise, must use space for only peaceful purposes. It also states that private entities must have approval from their government to operate in space.
“It is wrong to say space belongs to no one,” Professor Ram Jakhu, Director of the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal, told IFLScience. “If you look at the law, it belongs to everybody. It’s like a park in the middle of London. Everybody is entitled to use it, but that does not mean it belongs to anybody. There are conditions to use space. You can’t go start exploring on your own. Private companies are not entitled to do anything without permission of their government.”
Professor Jakhu also clarified a common misconception about spaceflight. Many think that the rules governing space are similar to those governing international waters. That, though, is not the case. “The law of outer space is different from the law of the sea,” he said.
This means any private entity launching from any country, whether it’s the US or Russia or China, must seek the same approval from their own government. Even SpaceX will need approval for its planned Mars mission in 2018. One reason for doing this is that if something went wrong in the mission, someone must be liable. If Moon Express accidentally landed on top of China’s now defunct Yutu lander on the Moon and damaged it, for example, the US government would have to accept responsibility, to prevent an international incident occurring.
Getting this approval is a bit iffy, though. Moon Express said in a statement last week that they had consulted with “the FAA, the White House, the State Department, NASA and other federal agencies” to get a “green light” for its lunar mission. However, there is no formal framework in place for a private company operating outside Earth orbit. This has led to recent moves in the US to create more defined regulations regarding space exploration. One of these was the Space Act of 2015, which in part allows a company to extract and use resources via processes like asteroid mining.
But the crux of it is that there isn’t really a solid legal framework for landing on the Moon. “The law and regulations need to be developed to regulate the activities that Moon Express is currently planning and an appropriate governmental body needs to be established for this purpose,” said Professor Jakhu.
So, Moon Express has tentative permission for its lander to travel outside of Earth orbit from the FAA, but ratification for its lunar operations is in the hands of the US government. Other competitors in the Google Lunar XPRIZE, such as Israeli-based SpaceIL, will need similar approval from their own governments.
And there you have it. As you can probably tell, private space travel is a bit of a legal minefield at the moment, and with more and more companies announcing plans for missions to Earth orbit and beyond, it’s probably time we had something a bit more definitive in place.