Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has triggered a new space race with the successful launch and recovery of his rockets.
Commercial firms are funding research and exploration.
Bigelow Space Operations is the latest firm to announce firing space stations for scientific and recreational use into Earth orbit.
The company plans to build and launch a space station 2.5 times the size of the current international space station.
Besides colonies on the Moon and Mars, companies intend to put thousands more satellites in orbit to beam down phone, TV and internet signals.
Treaties and agreements
But who owns space and polices if these satellites are safe?
Countries with space agencies have agreed a series of treaties and agreement since the first space launch of satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957.
Then, the United Nations General Assembly instituted a standing committee to monitor the peaceful use of outer space (COPUOUS).
COPUOUS membership includes the United States (NASA), Russia (Roscosmos), Japan, China, Canada, Brazil, Australia and the member states of the European Space Agency.
The three main points of the committee supports are:
- All nations can explore space with no fear of sovereign claims – so no one owns the Moon or Mars.
- Nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction are not allowed in space
- Countries are responsible for damage their space craft cause and must not contaminate space. Around 500,000 ‘dead’ man-made objects are thought to orbit the Earth
Space law and commercial firms
A few years after COPUOUS, the International Institute of Space Law was created as a non-government organisation.
Space law looks at many issues besides who owns what, but many of the older treaties and agreements between governments do not cover commercial firms launching satellites or spacecraft.
Importantly, the UN treaties are not binding on signatories and in many cases, many leading space nations have not signed them.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration licences commercial space launches. Unmanned rockets must have a pre-launch permit before heading for space or high-altitude.
Dennis Hope, an American entrepreneur says he has sold 2.5 million one-acre plots on the Moon for $20 an acre. He claims he allocates the plots by closing his eyes and stabbing a map of the Moon randomly.