Call it the $5,000-to-$50,000 question: If a meteorite crashes through your roof, is it yours or your landlord’s?
A piece of the moon that fell to Earth
—Image courtesy NASA
That’s the dilemma being faced right now by a doctor in Lorton, Virginia, who recently had a meteorite the size of a tennis ball come to a screeching halt in the examination room next door.
Marc Gallini, who maintains the practice with fellow doctor Frank Ciampi, promptly brought the space rock to the Smithsonian, which proclaimed it to be a genuine former asteroid from the belt between Mars and Jupiter and offered the good doctors $5,000 for the lump.
But according to the Associated Press, the landlords who own the doctor’s office are now saying the space rock is theirs to claim.
On the open market, a meteorite of this size could fetch $25,000 to $50,000, an expert appraiser told AP.
So far the landlords haven’t made any formal demands, and the rock remains with the Smithsonian. But the doctors’ lawyer wants to take the case to court anyway, saying it’s “the fairest way to deal with things.”
Fundamentally this is a legal question. Does an acorn that drops on your patio become your acorn? Or does it belong to the people renting your house? For that matter, does it belong to your neighbors, because it fell off a tree in their yard?
Or, to look at it another way, does the acorn belong to everyone, since we all live on the planet it was once a natural part of?
Contrary to what Eddie says, we don’t own the moon cuz we stuck a flag in it.
—Image courtesy NASA
For example, most governments agree at this stage that nobody owns the moon.
But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to claim it and sell off units of property. There’s valuable stuff that could be mined on the moon, after all, and to some folk it’s the next pioneer’s landscape, no different than California was during the Westward Expansion in the 1800s.
If it ever becomes feasible for humans to land on Mars, or any other planet for that matter, the rules will be much the same. Which on one hand is weird, considering that we are totally comfortable with owning a parcel of land here on Earth.
Now granted, no one person owns the Earth. But we do allow governments to claim large hunks of land and sea, and then we allow governments/corporations/individual people to buy and sell the land and what’s on it.
So in the science-fiction future, when there are colonies on the moon and Mars, who owns the lovely bungalow I’m gonna live in along the Sea of Tranquility?
Asteroid 951 Gaspra: I can haz?
—Image courtesy U.S. Geological Survey
On the other hand, why is it OK to say no one is allowed to own Itokawa or Vesta, but anyone can call finders-keepers on pieces of them that fall to Earth?
Okay, I’ll admit, small meteorites make for some nice jewelry. But chunks larger than a golf ball or so could be so much more valuable to humans as a whole if they’re put in the hands of scientists and educators.
Even though the outsides of meteorites are burned to a crisp, when handled with care, the insides can offer valuable clues to what our solar system was like as it was shaping up 4.6 billion years ago.
I guess I’m torn between the lofty idea that meteorites are for the benefit of the people, and the notion of fairness that says if a space rock almost beans you in the office, you should have the right to decide what to do with it.
In Lorton’s case, it’s just the luck of the draw that the people who found the space rock want it to go to science and not on a bookshelf at home.
Whether they ultimately get to make that call, it seems, will be up to the courts to decide.