By Alexander Gonzalez and Sidh Sikka   

      Establishing extraterrestrial colonies has become a new undertaking by both private and public entities, with their prime target being Mars. Though colonial ventures historically received strong governmental support, nations were never the only entities to attempt settlement. The case of Mars has proceeded similarly in this regard, despite it having no precedent as potentially the first extraterrestrial territory. The US and Russian governments both individually plan to have a round trip journey to Mars during the 2030s; their main contender is the private aerospace company SpaceX, which is gearing toward a crewed Mars landing by 2024.[1,2] Each of these groups are working independently, effectively making the goal of reaching Mars a race between them. They have their own distinct project plans and will almost certainly have different ideas on how Martian colonies should be governed.

     This new colonial space age brings questions about what sort of governmental structure will be used to control a distant territory on a different planet. It is often suggested that extraterrestrial colonies should be governed by the country hosting the initial launch, but existing space law covering proprietary rights and legal jurisdiction may not make this possible. The remaining options are self-government of the colony, government by the corporation supporting the mission, or a combination of all these.

     The governing of Martian colonies solely by individual nations, while a simple and attractive proposal, is prevented by the terms of certain international treaties which outline proprietary rights and legal jurisdiction. One of these, the Outer Space Treaty, expressly forbids nations from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies.[3] It does not, however, forbid non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from claiming sovereignty over planetary resources. In addition, it also holds a nation that launches a space object liable over the object, and in jurisdiction of it. The implication of these terms is that the host nation of any NGOs with space projects would still be responsible for project activities, including colonization, even if the government did not provide any support for the project. It then follows that corporations would likely require the authorization and supervision of their host nations before proceeding with colonization.

     The Space Liability Treaty further expands upon this framework by calling for nations to maintain international liability for objects launched to space from within their territory.[4] As a consequence, any legal claims about damage from a space object must be brought up between nations, as opposed to being brought up by individuals or corporations against each other or against other nations. This has the potential to be troublesome for colonization efforts, because any legal issues encountered in a Martian colony would have to go through the host nation’s legal system. This would be highly inefficient, even moreso when considering delays in communication. It is also noteworthy to mention the Moon Treaty, which has not been ratified by any major space faring nation. The Moon Treaty contains an article explicitly banning ownership of extraterrestrial property by an individual or organization unless the organization is international and governmental.[5] The major involvement in the Outer Space Treaty and lack of participation in the Moon Treaty suggests that nations intend their citizenry to pave the way for colonization while the state serves as a supervisor.

     In both the case of a private corporation or governmental organization (e.g. NASA, JAXA, ESA, etc.) building an extraterrestrial colony, the host nation's’ government is bound by treaty to be involved in their activities as a supervisor. Because of this relation, it is likely that the host country would be involved in authorizing any plans for establishing a colony on Mars. In this case, colonies, regardless of the type of organization that established it, would be treated as an extension of the host nation’s territory. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is tasked with ensuring fulfillment of treaties and agreements, such as the ones mentioned before, regarding outer space activities. Countries adhering to these agreements are expected to continue doing so unless they become irrational powers or some other event triggers a withdrawal from the mentioned agreements and treaties. This leads us to believe that they will be applicable for colonization efforts in the foreseeable future.

     The applicability of terrestrial-borne space law to a colony on Mars makes it likely that early colonies will be governed by the nation that hosted the launch. If a governmental organization like NASA sent a colonial mission to Mars, then the colonists would fall under the legislative jurisdiction of the U.S. even though the colony is about 34 million miles away. The U.S. may not be able to claim sovereignty over the colony, but the colonist’s dependence on the U.S. for supplies and the U.S.’s obligation to the international community via treaties would make the colony akin to a territory. If a private corporation like SpaceX embarked on a colonial mission, then as a non-governmental organization they would be able to lay claim to the territory, however, they would need the approval of their host nation. In this manner, the nation is not explicitly claiming territorial sovereignty. Rather, individuals residing within the nation are laying claim to the territory. A colony created in this manner would still fall under the governorship of the host country by extension because the corporation that sent the mission is regulated by the host country’s government. There is always the unlikely possibility of space faring nations withdrawing from the Outer Space Treaty, in which case they would be free to claim sovereignty over celestial bodies. A situation like this may not cause much problems early in the colonial age when few countries are establishing extraterrestrial colonies, but there is potential for conflict when more countries begin claiming territory.

     The upcoming colonial space age will inevitably diverge from historical experience. Where expansion efforts of the past met resistance from existing civilizations in those territories of interest, we will instead face a barren wasteland on Mars. Our efforts to establish a colony on Mars are motivated by scientific curiosity, the promise of adventure, and a need to access an expanded set of potential solutions for the problems here on Earth. Mars is a new planet - a whole new world, and we might just find a new form of government arising there as a unique product of contemporary circumstance.


  1. Wilson, Jim. "Journey to Mars Overview." NASA. September 16, 2016. Accessed December 01, 2017. .
  2. Musk, Elon. "Becoming a Multiplanet Species." Speech, Mexico, Guadalajara, November 20, 2017.
  3. UN General Assembly. "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies." Outer Space Treaty. Accessed December 01, 2017.
  4. UN General Assembly. "Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects." Liability Convention. Accessed December 01, 2017.
  5. UN General Assembly. "Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies." Moon Agreement. Accessed December 01, 2017.