Meteorites: Who owns what now?

Who owns a meteorite? Well, it depends on who you ask. Scientists, hobbyists, governments, quacks, museum curators and unscrupulous scavengers all have their own opinion.

By now I trust you've read the news concerning the meteorite that crashed through the roof of a Virginia medical office last month. Like a steak dropped into a dog pit, the palm-sized space invader was instantly a source of strife.

The Smithsonian Institute offered the two doctors whose office it was $5,000 for the little piece of heaven, which they quickly accepted. Meanwhile, the actual property owners decided to make a play for the meteorite themselves. They cited as precedents U.S. court cases that ruled a meteorite becomes part of the land it crashes into. They owned the land, which meant - in theory - they owned the newly arrived Lorton meteorite as well.

For now, the Smithsonian is holding onto the space rock while the ownership rights play out. According to the Associated Press, it could fetch up to $50,000 on the open market. Welcome to the world of meteorite hunters.

Meteorites mean different things to different people (even if they're just rocks).

To the superstitious, they might contain star jelly (as the old codger from "The Blob" explores to the right) or constitute a message from the gods.

To a scientist, they're cosmic Kinder Eggs, packed with mineralized glimpses at foreign planets and the very origin of our solar system. Just consider Mars: our only chance to examine its surface firsthand has come via meteorites (debris from cosmic collisions between Mars and other space rocks).

And to a savvy opportunist with an eye on the skies, a meteorite might just be a $50,000 deposit in their bank account.

The past hundred years have seen a lot of squabbling over space rocks, generally due to the interplay between these three groups, as well as governmental bodies.

For example, the American Museum of Natural History had to make good over stealing the sacred Tomanowos (aka the Willamette Meteorite) from the Clackama Native American tribe in 1906. In India, the police have had to interfere to make sure that meteorites wind up in labs instead of private display cases. In North Africa, meteorite smuggling has become such a drain on local scientific research that major museums have taken steps to discourage their traffic. In fact, the Smithsonian, refuses to import meteorites from North Africa. See BBC News's "Meteorite smugglers anger scientists."

But it's not quite as cut-and-dry as money vs. science. Greedy scavengers sometimes play an important role in getting the meteorites to scientists. They're sort of like the unsavory bounty hunters Darth Vader summons in "The Empire Strikes Back." Sure, you might think they're scum, but who else is going to do the job?

In many countries (such as Gambia, Australia, Switzerland, Denmark, Argentina and India) meteorite ownership defaults to the government or state museums. But do you seriously think Gambia has a full-time meteorite-hunting squad to collect the goods and bring them back to researchers?

Restrict the private collection of meteorites too stringently and you find that either no one's collecting them or people simply smuggle them somewhere else to hawk them. Allow a free market full of inflated prices and, sure, some meteorites will wind up as nameless trinkets on a shelf or entombed within a sacred shrine, but the rest will be found, documented and... well, sold on eBay or something. Log into that PayPal account, Smithsonian.

For every professional meteorite expert or science-conscious hobbyist, there seems to be a shameless opportunist or a fumbling novice. But hey, we all wish for different things when we glimpse a falling star, right?

Keep Watching the Skies:

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