Does Anyone Own the Moon?

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iStock

For decades, science fiction authors have imagined the Moon as one of humanity’s great land conquests, home to space colonies, space prisons, space labs, and space apartments. Jules Verne wrote that we would arrive there by firing astronauts out of a cannon. Robert Heinlein conceived of a moon base that resists governance from Earth and revolts.

With several countries—including Japan, India, and China—making plans for a crewed Moon mission for the first time since the United States last touched down in 1972, the question of who has a claim to the Moon and its resources is less a speculative fiction subject and more one for lawyers. Specifically, space lawyers.

In a post for Real Clear Science, Frans von der Dunk, an attorney and professor of space law (honestly) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Law, examined the question of Moon ownership. Two years before Americans landed on the lunar surface for the first time in 1969, countries including the U.S. and the Soviet Union prepared and committed to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which solidified the moon as a “global commons.” It could belong to no single nation, and its secrets, resources, and other untapped potential would be in the service of the greater good. As a goodwill effort, the U.S. even shared soil and rock samples with Russia in spite of the Cold War making such scientific fraternization unlikely.

While no nation can assert land rights on the Moon, the question of who owns resources cultivated from both the Moon and asteroids—which are also materially part of the treaty—is not so clear. If a country is able to mine minerals and other space resources, are they able to claim possession, or must they be shared with the rest of the world?

Von der Dunk isn’t quite sure, which is why “space law” and “space lawyer,” though they sound comical, are probably going to be very real and very needed in the near future. It might be that mining asteroids or the Moon becomes akin to commercial fishing: So long as you’re licensed, you can keep what you catch. But some countries, like Russia, believe anything extracted from space should have communal benefits to humanity as a whole.

One thing is certain: Neil Armstrong planting a U.S. flag on the Moon, while evocative, probably won’t mean a whole lot in space court.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

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iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

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iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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