Meteorites and their legal status

Let’s study for this article in Space Legal Issues meteorites and their legal status. The question we are asking ourselves, concerning meteorites and their legal status, is the following: who do meteorites belong to? “The heavens, the stars, are goods so common to the whole society of men, that no one can master them, nor deprive others of them”, Jean Domat, Lois civiles dans leur ordre naturel (1689). Commerce in meteorites raises questions about their ownership and control.

Let’s look at The Chase of the Golden Meteor (French: La Chasse au météore), a novel by Jules Verne. It was one of the last novels written by the prolific French hard science fiction pioneer. In this fiction, Forsyth and Hudelson are two amateur astronomers. On the same day, at the same hour, the same minute, and the same second, they perceive, from their respective observation posts, a golden meteor. The two astronomers are then going to attribute to themselves the honour of this discovery. When Forsyth becomes aware of the value of the celestial body, he is going to exclaim “I discovered it! It belongs to me!”. As for Hudelson, he exults “It’s my object, and if it came to fall on our globe, it would belong to me in full ownership!”.

The two amateur astronomers will, in fact, go before the Justice of the Peace in order to “establish their rights on the priority of the discovery of the bolide, and, subsidiarily, on the property that this priority entails”. On the question of the priority of discovery, the judge will declare himself incompetent. And on the question of the ownership of the (then) celestial body, he will advise the two amateur astronomers to share the benefits of the exploitation. The meteor is then going to explode in the sea.

Since ancient times, man knows, to use the expression of Pliny the Elder, that “stones fall from the sky”. Besides the Natural History of the latter, Diogenes’ stories of Apollonia, Plutarch or Livy are there to testify. But it was not envisaged that meteorites could have an extraterrestrial origin: Aristotle, for example, thought that meteorites were earthly stones removed by the force of the wind. At the very end of the eighteenth century, the extraterrestrial origin of the meteorites is definitively demonstrated and accepted. An extraterrestrial origin which, in the state of the last acquired knowledge, is declined in a triple origin: ninety-nine per cent of the meteorites discovered on Earth come from the belt of asteroids located between Mars and Jupiter. The remaining one per cent is composed of meteorites of lunar or Martian origin.

What are meteorites?

In this article on meteorites and their legal status, let’s have a look at some definitions. A meteorite is a solid piece of debris from an object, such as a comet, asteroid, or meteoroid, which originates in outer space and survives its passage through the atmosphere to reach the surface of Earth.

A comet is an icy, Small Solar System Body (an object in the Solar System that is neither a planet, a dwarf planet, nor a natural satellite. The term was first defined in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union as follows: “All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as Small Solar System Bodies”) that, when passing close to the Sun, warms and begins to release gases, a process called outgassing (the release of a gas that was dissolved, trapped, frozen or absorbed in some material). This produces a visible atmosphere or coma (the nebulous envelope around the nucleus of a comet, formed when the comet passes close to the Sun on its highly elliptical orbit; as the comet warms, parts of it sublime), and sometimes also a tail. These phenomena are due to the effects of solar radiation and the solar wind acting upon the nucleus of the comet.

Asteroids are minor planets (an astronomical object in direct orbit around the Sun that is neither a planet nor exclusively classified as a comet), especially of the inner Solar System. Larger asteroids have also been called planetoids. These terms have historically been applied to any astronomical object orbiting the Sun that did not resemble a planet-like disc, and was not observed to have characteristics of an active comet such as a tail. There exist millions of asteroids, many thought to be the shattered remnants of planetesimals (solid objects thought to exist in protoplanetary disks and in debris disks), bodies within the young Sun’s solar nebula that never grew large enough to become planets. The vast majority of known asteroids orbit within the main asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, or are co-orbital with Jupiter (the Jupiter Trojans, commonly called Trojan asteroids or simply Trojans, are a large group of asteroids that share the planet Jupiter’s orbit around the Sun).

A meteoroid is a small rocky or metallic body in outer space. Meteoroids are significantly smaller than asteroids, and range in size from small grains to one-meter-wide objects. Objects smaller than this are classified as micrometeoroids (a tiny meteoroid, a small particle of rock in space, usually weighing less than a gram) or space dust (cosmic dust, also called extraterrestrial dust or space dust, is dust which exists in outer space, or has fallen on Earth). Most are fragments from comets or asteroids, whereas others are collision impact debris ejected from bodies such as the Moon or Mars.

When a comet, asteroid or meteoroid enters Earth’s atmosphere, usually at a speed of about seventy-five thousand kilometres per hour, aerodynamic heating of that object produces a streak of light, both from the glowing object and the trail of glowing particles that it leaves in its wake: this phenomenon is called a meteor or shooting star. If that object withstands ablation (removal of material from the surface of an object by vaporization, chipping, or other erosive processes) from its passage through the atmosphere as a meteor and impacts with the ground, it is then called a meteorite.

Are meteorites celestial bodies?

When talking about meteorites and their legal status, what are celestial bodies? The term celestial body is as expansive as the entire universe, both known and unknown. By definition a celestial body is any natural body outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Like the Moon, the Sun, and the other planets of our Solar System. Comets, asteroids or meteoroids are celestial bodies. So are black holes, galaxies, nebulae, stars or any solid/gas objects from outer space.

If the object is man-made and launched from Earth, it is called a space object. If the object is man-made in outer space, we believe it’ll still be considered a space object. Because man-made objects usually use on Earth machines and technologies to be built, machine-made objects built in outer space, where machines (such as 3D Printers) and technologies are used, will still be considered space objects. What about if the object in not a natural body outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, but an extraterrestrial-made object? Would it be considered a celestial body? We don’t think so and because of the effects such a finding would have on Earth and its inhabitants, questions about its potential legal regime wouldn’t be Earth’s priority…

As a result, stars, the Moon or the Sun, asteroids, black holes, Mars… are all celestial bodies. Everything flying through outer space that isn’t man-made or extraterrestrial-made is a celestial body. This means that, according to the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on October 10, 1967) and particularly its Article II, “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”. It is the non-appropriation principle.

The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (opened for signature on December 18, 1979), which specifies in its Article 1 that “1. The provisions of this Agreement relating to the Moon shall also apply to other celestial bodies within the solar system, other than the Earth, except insofar as specific legal norms enter into force with respect to any of these celestial bodies”, states in its Article 11 that “2. The Moon is not subject to national appropriation by any claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. 3. Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the Moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person. The placement of personnel, space vehicles, equipment, facilities, stations and installations on or below the surface of the Moon, including structures connected with its surface or subsurface, shall not create a right of ownership over the surface or the subsurface of the Moon or any areas thereof. The foregoing provisions are without prejudice to the international regime referred to in paragraph 5 of this article”. The celestial bodies that evolve in outer space are, like this environment, not subject to any kind of appropriation: no one can own celestial bodies.

This reminds us (concerning meteorites and their legal status) of the res communis principle. A res communis could be defined as a “common thing”. It is a Latin phrase used in ius publicum (Latin for public law): by the past, public law regulated the relationships of the government to its citizens, including taxation, while ius privatum (Latin for private law), based upon property and contract, concerned relations between individuals. The “public/private law dichotomy” is a structural core of Roman law and all modern western legal systems.

Ius publicum was used also to describe obligatory legal regulations, such as ius cogens, which is now a term used in public international law meaning basic rules which cannot (or should not) be broken, or contracted out of. Regulations that can be changed are called today ius dispositivum, and they are used when party shares something and are not in opposition.

Res communis preceded today’s concepts of the commons and common heritage of mankind. It has relevance in public international law and common law (also known as judge-made law and case law, is that body of law derived from judicial decisions of courts and similar tribunals).

In the sixth century C.E., the Institutes of Justinian restated the Roman rule as follows: “By the law of nature these things are common to mankind – the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea”. The public acquired certain usufructuary rights (a limited real right, or in rem right, found in civil law and mixed jurisdictions that unites the two property interests of usus, the right to use or enjoy a thing possessed, directly and without altering it, and fructus, the right to derive profit from a thing possessed: for instance, by selling crops) in these resources by virtue of its common property interest in them. For example, all rivers and ports were public such that everyone had a right to fish in them.

Everyone also had the right to approach the seashore provided that habitations, monuments, and buildings were respected; to build a cottage on the seashore; to haul nets to the shore from the sea; and to dry them there. Finally, everyone had a right to navigate rivers, to bring vessels to their banks and to tie them to trees growing there, and to deposit the vessels’ cargo on the banks, even though the banks and trees were the property of the riparian landowners. The state apparently protected the uses to which the res communis concept applied, although there is no evidence that the Roman public could enforce its right against the state to these uses.

Biological examples of res communis include fish and mammals in high seas. Rules for use of the continent Antarctica were based on res communis as was development of Space Law. The term can be contrasted with res nullius, the concept of ownerless property, associated for example with terra nullius, the concept of unowned territory.

Article I of the Outer Space Treaty adds that “The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind. Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies. There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international cooperation in such investigation”.

What about meteorites, celestial bodies which withstood ablation (and are then called meteors) and impacted with the ground (and are then called meteorites)? Because humanity has since the beginning of time collected, used, sold or exhibited those objects coming from outer space, we don’t believe them to be celestial bodies under the terms of the Outer Space Treaty, which can be viewed as furnishing a general legal basis for the peaceful uses of outer space and providing a framework for the developing law of outer space. Article 1 of the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies enounces that “3. This Agreement does not apply to extraterrestrial materials which reach the surface of the Earth by natural means”.

Meteorites and their legal status: can meteorites be appropriated?

When meteorites have reached the surface of the Earth, they can be, from that moment, appropriated. But who do they belong to? In the 1960s, the UNESCO had suggested, arguing that “meteorites were the only tangible matter that we have from the extraterrestrial universe, their importance is international rather than national”, the development of a special convention on meteorites and their property. It never came into being. As a result, it is only at the national level that the question of the ownership of meteorites is settled. Ownership of a new find is determined by the law of the place of the find. Legal regimes range from a free market to deemed state ownership with no compensation to finders. A free market gives an incentive to searchers but allows ownership by private collectors who do not curate specimens scientifically. Confiscatory laws tempt searchers to conceal or sell finds illegally; or, misrepresent strewn field data to conceal sources, or to make it appear that a meteorite has been legally obtained.

In France, a meteorite is considered a res nullius. A res nullius could be defined as “nobody’s thing”. It is a Latin phrase used in ius privatum (Latin for private law), based upon property and contract, concerned relations between individuals. It means “something without a master”, that is to say which has no owner but which is nevertheless appropriable.

Res” (an object in the legal sense, anything that can be owned) is not yet the object of rights of any specific subject. Such items are considered ownerless property and are free to be acquired by means of “occupatio”. In Roman law, occupatio was an original method of acquiring ownership of un-owned property (res nullius) by occupying with intent to own. According to the Roman jurist Gaius, any previously unowned thing becomes the just property of the first occupant able to “capture” it: “Another title of natural reason, besides Tradition, is Occupation – occupatio, whereby things previously the property of no one become the property of the first occupant, as the wild inhabitants of Earth, air, and water, as soon as they are captured. For wild beasts, birds, and fishes, as soon as they are captured, become, by natural law, the property of the captor, but only continue such so long as they continue in his power; after breaking from his custody and recovering their natural liberty, they may become the property of the next occupant; for the ownership of the first captor is terminated. Their natural liberty is deemed to be recovered when they have escaped from his sight, or, though they continue in his sight, when they are difficult to recapture”.

Examples of res nullius in the socio-economic sphere are wild animals (ferae naturae) or abandoned property (res derelictae). Finding can also be a means of occupation, since a thing completely lost or abandoned is res nullius, and therefore belonged to the first taker.

Conclusion on meteorites and their legal status

And elsewhere? What about meteorites and their legal status? Legal solutions similar to the French one can be found in Morocco (the meteorites belong to those who find them), in Japan (the property of meteorites can be acquired by occupation), in England (the meteorite belongs to the landowner) or in the United States of America. However, any meteorite that has fallen on any part of the U.S. federal land (lands in the United States of America owned by the federal government) is insusceptible of private property, since it belongs de jure to the federal government.

In India, any discovered meteorite must be delivered to the Geology Museum. In Australia, most states have adopted Acts to say that meteorites are the property of state museums. And in Tunisia, meteorites belong to the state, not to the people who find them. That is what we can say on meteorites and their legal status.