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My question is pretty simple: if I somehow retrieved the Tesla sent into orbit by SpaceX earlier this week, could I keep it? Why or why not?

I'm specifically wondering if there are any laws pertaining to ownership/theft of items left unmanned out in space, either in the form of international treaties the US recognizes, or laws the US would enforce against its own citizens, as I do live there.

  • If a thing is yours it is yours wherever it is. The outer space does not have any ability to wipe ownership out. – Greendrake Feb 8 '18 at 8:59
  • @Greendrake so how do salvage rights work? Is there no legal procedure for something being abandoned? – childofsoong Feb 8 '18 at 17:20
  • @childofsoong: Abandonment is a different matter. But merely leaving an object somewhere, e.g. in outer space, does not itself evidence abandonment. – eggyal Feb 8 '18 at 18:43
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    I know you are asking generally about whether there are any salvage laws in space, but for the specific example of the Tesla Roadster, the simplest answer is that you can keep it because Elon has said you can. – Hemsy19 Mar 5 '18 at 17:12
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As @Greendrake has already commented, property ownership rights are not affected by an object being in outer space—this was agreed in the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the "Outer Space Treaty"), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force on 10 October 1967. Its Article VIII states (emphasis added):

A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return.

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    Musk isn't a State Party. – Richard Feb 8 '18 at 19:06
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    @Richard: No, but the United States is and therefore by ratifying this treaty it recognises that ownership of objects are not affected by their placement in space. – eggyal Feb 8 '18 at 19:13
  • Sure, and the US would certainly continue to have jurisdiction over said object, but that doesn't confer on them a right of ownership. – Richard Feb 8 '18 at 19:52
  • @Richard: I never said it did. I said that the US is bound to recognise that property rights are unaffected, so whoever the owner is (SpaceX?) is entitled to assert their ownership just as if the object had never left Earth. Whether it is deemed to be abandoned is another matter, but I suspect SpaceX would claim to have left it in space for a reason and have not relinquished their ownership rights... – eggyal Feb 8 '18 at 19:55
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    If @childofsoong somehow went into space and collected it, he'd have an amazing case for abandonment since their avowed intent was to fling off into space. It would, however remain for the US courts to decide. That's all the Outer Space Treaty makes provision for, not its return to the private individual who abandoned it. – Richard Feb 8 '18 at 19:56
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If a private citizen or a company disposes of a piece of property with no expectation of its return, then it can be collected by another person without hindrance. It is considered "abandoned" per UNITED STATES v. REDMON.

Thus, the intent to relinquish ownership and abandon trash is tantamount to “throwing away” a subjective expectation of privacy in it that society accepts as objectively reasonable.   In short, when it comes to abandoned property, “I know it when I see it,” Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197, 84 S.Ct. 1676, 1683, 12 L.Ed.2d 793 (1964) (Stewart, J., concurring) (identifying what constitutes “obscene” material), and when the police see abandoned garbage which has been left unsecured in its usual place and at its usual time for collection, it is theirs for the taking..

Since Musk has stated that there is no reasonable possibility of its return and since he is no longer in communication with it, it can be considered (for all intents and purposes) to be abandoned garbage unlike, for example a privately owned orbiter or a communication satellite.

"We estimate it'll be in that orbit for several hundred million years, maybe in excess of a billion years," Musk said before launch. Tuesday night, he tweeted: "Third burn successful. Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt."

SpaceX's Tesla's out-of-this-world view

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