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No, people cannot legally buy planets, despite celebrity’s claim

Although Grimes claimed rapper Lil Uzi Vert was the first human to legally own a planet, his ownership is unlikely to be legally recognized by any government.
Credit: AP
This illustration made available by the European Southern Observatory on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 shows the planet Ross 128 b, which orbits a red dwarf star, 11 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet is the second-closest to be detected yet outside our solar system with surface temperatures potentially similar to ours. (M. Kornmesser/ESO via AP)

In late July, pop artist Grimes claimed Lil Uzi Vert, a rap artist, owned a planet outside of our solar system called WASP-127b. Vert replied he was still working on it and Grimes later replied the documentation was complete and Vert was the first human to legally own a planet. Vert then asked his fans what he should name his planet.

The entire exchange happened within one calendar day. 

No people or organizations outside of the pair of celebrities involved themselves in the exchange and no announcements of the sale were made by any person or group aside from Grimes’ tweet.

THE QUESTION

Can a person legally buy a planet?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, people cannot legally buy planets, at least for now. There isn’t any way to legally enforce a claim to a planet, and courts have rejected similar claims in the past. International law forbids countries from claiming any celestial body, meaning a nation cannot grant space real estate to its citizens.

WHAT WE FOUND

Dr. Mark Sundahl, director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University, believes international law does not allow for private land ownership in space. And while there’s some debate on this topic, there is no way a person can currently buy an entire planet — especially not one light-years away.

The debate resides in interpretation of Article II of the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement governing space activities that was adopted and entered into force in the late 1960s. 

Article II states: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

While that article clearly forbids a state from claiming the Moon or other pieces of the cosmos as its own, it mentions nothing about private individuals. Individuals are explicitly forbidden from claiming land in space by the later Moon Agreement, but that treaty has only been ratified by 18 countries. No space-faring nations, including the United States, have ratified the Moon Agreement.

Various individuals have interpreted the failure of the Moon Agreement as an affirmation of the loophole in Article II of the Outer Space Treaty and tried to claim land in space. Gregory Nemitz attempted to sue NASA for trespassing in 2001 when it landed a probe on an asteroid Nemtiz said he claimed through a now-defunct private website. The courts dismissed his claim for failure to assert property rights.

Dr. Sundahl said today’s celestial real estate websites would run into similar issues if they or their customers tried to press their property claims in the courts. The International Astronomical Union, which is responsible for naming stars and exoplanets like WASP-127b, dissociates itself entirely from the sale of star names and celestial real estate. The IAU says the sale of both names and real estate in space lack authority and are fictitious.

NASA says WASP-127b is 520 light-years away, well beyond the limits of human travel, which means the only avenue Lil Uzi Vert has for enforcing his claim is through the courts, according to Dr. Sundahl. Not only does the Nemitz case suggest the courts wouldn’t recognize such a claim, but also a country’s court system would likely run into issues granting a claim given the Outer Space Agreement prohibits nations from having sovereignty over land in space.

There is no international body that oversees land in space. So there isn’t an international court or body to go to that will recognize celestial land claims.

Dr. Sundahl said there are some avenues for property rights enforcement in space, but those mostly relate to resource extraction. He said he is currently working on a framework with other experts for a space resource registry to get ahead of possible issues that will come with celestial resource extraction when it takes off.

The 2015 SPACE Act guarantees federal government facilitation of commercial resource extraction from asteroids and other celestial bodies, but a disclaimer at the very end of the law’s text says, “the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.”

Aerospace and defense company Northrop Grunman said in a March 2020 blog post that the bill allows private companies to build on, mine and claim mined resources on celestial bodies such as Mars, but doesn’t allow for those companies to own any of the land on those bodies. 

Northrop Gunman also added that a land deed for Mars or any other planet “won’t be recognized by any government authority as legitimate or legally binding.”

So Lil Uzi Vert can’t legally rename the planet and it’s unlikely a court would support his claim. He can’t travel to the planet and neither can anyone else, so there aren’t any opportunities for him to fight for the rights to the planet’s resources.

It’s unlikely Lil Uzi Vert, or anyone else, owns the gaseous WASP-127b. And no one owns any other planet in the universe, at least for now.

More from VERIFY: No, NASA did not say the main cause of tidal flooding in 2030s will be the moon’s ‘wobble’

    

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