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One hundred and thirty-two years ago, 14 men sat at a table and divided up a continent. It was a large table. In fact, everything in the room was large: the heavy velvet drapes, the map of Africa that stretched across a wall. It was also a large continent they were divvying up.

In our lifetimes, we will sit with a similar problem to that of the men at the Berlin Conference: how do we divide up land that does not belong to us?

Mars, along with all other celestial objects, "belongs to all mankind", according to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This effectively means that it belongs to no-one. Professors of imperialism — yes, such a thing really does exist — say we can avoid the mistakes of the past and use Mars as the blueprint for human exploration of, and expansion onto, other planets.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which has been ratified by 104 countries, including SA, forms the basis of extraterrestrial law. According to it, space is the "province of all mankind" and "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."

Not only is that very broad and rather vague, but it is easier to decree before anyone has set foot on the red planet or before companies have set up camp.

The road to colonisation is paved by industry, with the tacit agreement of their governments. In the case of the African continent, at the Berlin Conference of 1884 "you had to show you were there on the ground", says Richard Rathbone, a professor emeritus at the School of Oriental & African Studies in the UK.

The men sitting around that table in Berlin represented some of the most powerful countries in the world, but it was companies and trade that established the foothold. The continent attracted prospectors and traders interested in ivory, timber and land, and the first European colonies were ultimately trading stations.

Because of European countries’ scramble for the continent and its resources, the situation got a bit tense on the international Monopoly board. The Berlin Conference was a way to sort out competition between themselves, says Joanna Lewis, assistant professor at the London School of Economics & Political Science. "They created arbitrary boundaries depending on who was most powerful at the time."

But the reason they were powerful and able to plant their flags in foreign soils — and defend them — was because of technology. "It was all about technology," Rathbone says. "Steam transport, telecoms, weapons, they were all crucial, and access to those things was not cheap."

Today we see the nascent seeds of this technology race: for example, who can make the cheapest, most reliable reusable rocket?

US companies SpaceX and Blue Origin are both trial testing their relaunchable rockets, while others are developing theirs with less fanfare and media attention. This is important: if we send people to Mars, they — like the traders who set up trading posts, scientists and explorers on the African continent long before them — may want to come home. Without relaunchable rockets, they’re stuck there.

There’s then the basic research to sustain humans on Mars — life support systems, cheaper fuel and habitation pods, among many things we haven’t thought of yet. All this needs to be researched, prototyped and developed. To do that, you need money — so the countries with the science budgets and large industry able to undertake research and development will outstrip everyone else. This means that they are much closer to a presence on Mars, and thus some form of claim on its resources, than others.

While many developing countries push to sit at the table — and some of them, such as India and China, are succeeding — the reality is that most do not have the budgets of the US and EU.

"Economically speaking, the role of private industry in space activities in some capitalistic countries is fundamental and active," says Chris Johnson, head of the space studies programme at the International Space University in the US.

This comes with pros and cons, Johnson says. On the plus side, companies are more risk tolerant, have a concentrated focus, and are smaller and more agile. But, on the other hand, companies are often driven by short-term profit motives, are less transparent and focus on wealth creation, while the public bears the risk.

But industry also drives technological development. By cutting companies out of the Mars exploration bounty, we would be discouraging exploration.

Last year, the US passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness & Entrepreneurship Act of 2015, or the Space Act. This act allows "US citizens to engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of ‘space resources’." These resources explicitly exclude anything biological, but encompass water and minerals.

Scholars argue that this may contravene the Outer Space Treaty, which the US has ratified. But the arguments around this are currently academic, as no-one is actively exploiting Martian resources — yet. In the next decade, this act will become a serious point of contention.

"Companies set up rule in a way to maximise profit, with no regard to people animals, wildlife, the natural world. It is catastrophic when we have companies calling the shots," says Lewis.

At the moment, states are ultimately responsible for what their companies do in space and, while in space, citizens are still governed by the laws of their home countries.

It would seem that the US already knows which way the interstellar wind is blowing.

Last month Elon Musk announced his plans to take 1m people to Mars and US president Barack Obama recently said that his country would send and retrieve people from Mars in the 2030s.

In a paper entitled "A Pragmatic Approach to Sovereignty on Mars", published in the journal Space Policy, the authors list a number of models for colonising Mars: international resource-sharing models, such as the Antarctic Treaty; a common property approach, which is what the Outer Space Treaty encourages; bounded possession, which limits the Martian land that countries and companies can plant their flags in; and the possibility of a Mars tax.

The authors, from the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, write: "We assume that the colonisation of Mars is inevitable, and that restricting sovereignty may pose as many problems as allowing it."

This may be true. There is also the concern that Earth will face another Berlin conference: the Monopoly board of Mars will be divvied up by powerful countries, some of whose power is entrenched by the extraterrestrial property they control — similar to what happened in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Unless it is tightly regulated from the start, with a whole range of responsible bodies on board that would reflect the whole world, not just the powerful nations, history could be replayed, Lewis says.

But how do we ensure that, if colonisation happens, it is not only the ambit of the rich?

Johnson agrees that there are points of similarity, but also "divergence". "Whether those points matter or shape future behaviour depends on the thoughtfulness of the actors, and whether those actors are short-term focused or long-term focused, and whether they act co-operatively and sustainably or not," he says.

One consolation is that the Mars-Africa analogy breaks down at terra nullius — at least Mars isn’t inhabited. As far as we know.