Wednesday, February 10, 2010

If You Find a Meteorite, Can You Really Claim It?

Astronomers, amateur and professionals alike, always dream of finding a meteorite. It's even more exciting if the meteorite is found just after it hits. Consider yourself very lucky if the meteorite falls somewhere near you and you get to retrieve it while it's fresh. But does finding and simply picking up a meteorite make it your own? Can you lay claim to it without anybody else contesting the legitimacy of your ownership?

The answer to both is yes... that is... if you, the one who found the meteorite, is also the owner of the land it slammed into. This means that if you found a meteorite on someone else's property, the landowner has the right to claim the object as his, never mind if it journeyed for millions of years in space before hitting dirt. While laws in different places may differ, it just shows that picking a meteorite up from the ground does not automatically make it yours.

Meteorites can fetch a lot of money, especially for specimens that cause a ruckus and are found right after impacting. These meteorites become popular and when broken in pieces, it can make a lot of money for the owner. Apart from museums and research institutions, collectors worldwide are willing to pay big for really good and popular specimens. Meteorites are like long lost treasures. But while the founder of lost treasures generally get a share of the bounty along with the owner of the land and the government, meteorites pose questions that require the services of good lawyers.

Just consider what happened at Williamsburg Square, in Lorton Virginia, USA in January 2009. A meteorite (top and left) crashed through the roof of a building and into a doctors' office. One doctor thought that a bookshelf had fallen on his partner after he heard a boom. But it turned out, a mango-sized meteorite was responsible for the explosion. It hit with such force that it embedded pieces of ceiling tiles into the floor, going through the carpet. The doctors were thankful the meteorite didn't hit any of them because it fell on a spot where they usually sit. The doctors placed the meteorite fragments in a box and sent them to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History where it was confirmed as a meteorite by scientist Cari Corrigan. She said it was likely traveling at 350kph when it hit.

You'd think that the Lorton meteorite has found it's final resting place in the Smithsonian? but no, the owner of the building it crashed into has laid claim to the space rock. The Smithsonian says it will hold on to the meteorite until ownership is resolved. It's up to history to say where the rock will end up.

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