Roadsters In Space: Tesla and the Orbit of Extraterrestrial Business

by: The Knowledge Group

February 13, 2018


This month Elon Musk shot a Tesla into space.

Four minutes past its launch, the second stage of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket shed its nose cone — revealing the bright red Tesla sports car. Behind the wheel was a mannequin clad in a space suit, designed through a commercial partnership with NASA.

And now, the mannequin and the Tesla are drifting through space — defining an orbit reaching as far out as Mars, NASA believes — and they could keep moving for generations. The dramatic event brings to mind interesting legal questions on space pollution, tort law involving damage by artificial space objects, and extraterrestrial property rights.

Space-Age Regs

The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies was established in the 1960s, and is widely accepted in principle. The Outer Space Treaty mainly relies on reasonableness of the parties.

But is it suited to regulate business ventures?

Various corporations regard outer space as a store of resources and potential profits. The Outer Space Treaty does consider private businesses and their prerogative to undertake projects in outer space under the permission of their own nations.

At the same time, the treaty deems all celestial bodies the common property of humankind.

Claiming Resources and Energy From Space

Given the reality of roadsters in orbit, expect the UN to focus in earnest on corporate designs on outer space.

At least one expert says corporations can exploit the Outer Space Treaty to stake claims to property on the moon and other celestial bodies. This is because the treaty makes allowances for countries to set up research stations and to use the resources they find. Given that other parties are then disallowed from impeding the first to arrive from, say, finding energy sources and claiming them, explains astrophysicist Martin Elvisde facto property rights will form.

The vagueness of a 1960s treaty might not have mattered too much back when it was formed, but it’s suddenly in the spotlight.