Land for sale on Venus and Mars at astronomical prices

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Just when we thought the season of sales would be ending, a company is to make us an offer quite simply out of this world: the Solar System is to be marketed.

Just when we thought the season of sales would be ending, a company is to make us an offer quite simply out of this world: the Solar System is to be marketed.

From the start of next month - and for a mere £20 including VAT - Britons can buy their very own acre of the Red Planet; and shortly afterwards, just in time for Valentine's Day, Venus will join it "on the shelves" at the same price.

Both properties are desirable. Mars with its spectacular canyons, expansive lava-plains and enormous volcanoes is only 48 million miles from Earth. Prime sites for purchase include Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, an impressive 16 miles high and 370 miles in diameter.

Venus is the brightest heavenly body after the Sun and the Moon and is Earth's nearest neighbour, a mere 26 million miles away. Its year is only 225 days long, which is a bonus for those who enjoy summer, but an average surface temperature of 475C means that they'd get more than just a tan.

The Cornish-based company behind the scheme, Moon Estates, have been selling plots of land on the Moon since September. This has gone so well that they have now decided to explore business options outside Earth's orbit. And they believe that what they are doing is perfectly legal.

"Moon sales have been absolutely incredible over the past four months," said Sue Williams, director of the company, last night. "That is one of the reasons why we have put these two planets on the market so soon.

"Our supplier has been selling extra-terrestrial land to Americans for the past 20 years and has never been successfully challenged in court. He has exclusive and legal right to sell this property."

Moon Estates is the UK "ambassadors", or exclusive distributors in this country, for a much larger US organisation called The Lunar Embassy. This is run by Dennis Hope, 52, an aviation expert from California, who is adamant that he has a legal claim over every major celestial body in the solar system except Earth: a total of eight planets and 51 moons. His accountant estimated last year that the properties were worth $763,000bn (£508,000,000,000,000).

Hope's claim over the heavens is based on a loophole in the UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which set out the "principles governing the activities of states in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies".

"Dennis studied the Outer Space Treaty thoroughly in the late 1970s," said Mrs Williams. "It basically states that no country or government can lay claim to land outside the Earth - but it doesn't say that no person can do so.

"He used the framework of the US Homestead Act to lay a claim in 1980, first with the US government, then with the UN, and then with what was then the USSR. He has registered his claim officially, and was the first to do so. He is the only person with the right to sell the Moon or any of the planets in our solar system."

Those wishing to buy a piece of Mars or Venus when they are launched on the British market next month will receive substantial official documentation in return. This ranges from a map of the planet, giving the exact location in longitude and latitude of the property, to a confirmation of exclusive mineral rights and a copy of Hope's original Declaration of Ownership, which was submitted to the UN.

Hope - who dubs himself the "Head Cheese" - has already drawn up constitutions for both Mars and Venus, and appears to have serious interstellar political ambitions.

"When there are 5 million owners of land on the Moon's surface, which Dennis hopes will be achieved later this year," Mrs Williams added, "he is going to apply to the UN for a seat. He would be representing a population larger than that of a small country, and firmly believes that there is a strong case for a UN seat of some kind."

Experts were actively seeking to discourage Britons from purchasing inter-planetary property from Moon Estates yesterday.

"As far as astronomers are concerned, there is no legal framework for making a claim on territory outside our own planet," said Jacqueline Mitton of the Royal Astronomical Society. "This whole thing sounds terribly official, but the reality is that it is essentially an entertainment activity. And those of us involved in astronomy don't like the joke very much.

"It's exploitative. It is a cynical attempt to take advantage of people's natural fascination with space and the stars. Rather than recognising space for the natural wonder it really is, this company is using it as an opportunity to take money from people who would be better off spending their £20 on a good book about how to recognise constellations, or a basic pair of binoculars, rather than a meaningless piece of paper."

The television astronomer Patrick Moore, speaking last night from his home in Selsey, West Sussex, described the offer as "totally bogus" and "utter rubbish".

"This is quite absurd," he said. "You can't sell Mars or Venus. It's like trying to sell the Eiffel Tower."