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.