A good friend, knowing about my passion for space science, surprised me this past Christmas with an unusual gag giftan exquisitely printed parchment deed entitling me to one-acre of land on the Moon. The deed to my extraterrestrial turf cost my friend about $25 including shipping and handling. The little piece of airless lunar paradise is identified on the deed and accompanying map; its located northwest of the giant crater Copernicus in the vast volcanic basin (maria) called the Ocean of Storms on the western edge of Lunas nearside. The idea of buying real estate on our Moon may seem like just another gift ripoffmuch like the radio commercials that promise to name a star after a loved one. But unlike the International Star Registry advertising come-ons (only the International Astronomical Union has the right to officially name stars and other celestial objects), there may be a legal claim when it comes to private versus international ownership of the Moons real estate and mineral rights. According to various reports, more than 2.5 million people from 180 countries have bought property on the Moon and Mars in sales that reached $1 million in 2006. The pronouncements are bold. The revenue is real. And a lunar land grab... is well underway, according to a recent Space.com news report by Robert Roy Britt. Most of the buyers are individuals who are convinced that $19.99 plus shipping and handling will secure them a building site on another world. Some 1,300 corporations, many hoping for otherworldly tax status, are also said to be among the clients. Most space lawyersyes, they actually existsay the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty forbids private ownership of the Moon or any other celestial body. Yet others claim there may be a chink in the U.N.s rusting treaty armor. Space.coms Britt writes that the current virtual lunar land rush foretells court battles to come. The leader of the current lunar land rush is American space entrepreneur Dennis Hope. Hope sells lunar deeds online through his Lunar Embassy company (
). "We're not trying to fool anybody about anything," Hope said in a Space.com news report. "The properties we sell are as legitimate as any property you buy anywhere on this planet." Hopes Lunar Embassy enterprise plans to claim the Moon in the near future via a privately built robot lander to plant his corporate flag on the lunar regolith. It will be the first private challenge to the 1967 U.N. treatya treaty many space enthusiasts, inspired by the late science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, believe is worth challenging. They also want to challenge the influence of the shadowy International Institute of Space Law which they claim is an anti-free enterprise organization run by socialist world-government types. "We believe it will change the history of this world," Hope told Space. com. "...The Lunar Embassy will be on the Moon. Our representative will then turn to a video camera and read a prepared statement validating our claim of ownership." Hope believes the major legal loophole in the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty is that the document proclaims no government can own extraterrestrial propertyit says nothing about individual or corporate ownership of the Moon. Space.coms Britt also wonders if international bodies such as the U.N. and national governments of Earth can really lay down the law of the heavens How might current law change when people actually get out there? Might individuals one day purchase suburban land beyond Earth in a legally undisputed manner? And if so, what entity or entities will recognize and protect their title? Whats in the Sky: The planet Mars passes closest to Earth this week. It rises at sunset and climbs during the night. It rises left of Orion and lines up with the stars Betelgeuse and Rigel. Mars may be hit by a big meteor during January. Stay tuned for updates.