If a meteorite is found on your land, do you own it?

What happens if you find a spacerock in your back garden? Who lays claim to meteorites?

A piece of a meteorite identified as coming from the asteroid Vesta. Credit: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Published: January 26, 2022 at 9:52 am
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When a meteor falls to Earth, once it hits the ground it becomes known as a meteorite and has the potential to generate attention from the scientific community, as well as making headlines around the world.

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After all, it's tricky to think of something so amazing as a space rock hurtling through Earth's atmosphere only to land in your town, village, or even back garden.

Fragments of a rare type of meteorite have been discovered outside a house in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, UK. Credit: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum
Fragments of a rare type of meteorite were discovered outside a house in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, UK in February 2021. Credit: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Who could forget the recent find of the Winchcombe meteorite or, going back a bit further, the Beddgelert meteorite?

There is also the incredible story of Ann Hodges, the only person recorded being injured by a meteorite, which duly crashed through her roof in Alabama, US in 1954.

American Dr Moody Jacobs shows a giant bruise on side and hip of his patient, Ann Elizabeth Hodges (1923 - 1972), who had been struck by a meteorite while inside her home, Sylacauga, Alabama, late 1954. (Photo by Jay Leviton/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Ann Elizabeth Hodges was struck by a meteorite while inside her home, Sylacauga, Alabama, late 1954. Photo by Jay Leviton/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Scientists, of course, are interested in meteorites for what they might tell us about the Universe.

These spacerocks are pristine relics left over from the formation of the Solar System, providing clues as to the evolution of our cosmic neighbourhood.

This is, after all, why astronomers study samples from other worlds.

Although by the time a meteor has landed on Earth as a meteorite, admittedly the sample will be less than pristine!

But what happens if you find a meteorite? Is it yours? Better still, what happens if a meteorite happens to land on your property?

Who owns a meteorite?

If you find a meteorite in the UK, it’s yours. You can keep these fossils of the early Solar System in the same way that you can keep fossils that formed on Earth, if you find any.

There are many who don’t agree with this approach of ‘finders keepers’, but there are certainly plenty of shops on the Devon coastline, where many fossils are found, that make a living from selling them.

If you do have a meteorite, you’ll probably want to learn more about its origin and composition, which requires analysis by a professional organisation.

The coastline at Beer, Devon, UK.
The south coastline in Devon, UK, is known for both its dinosaur fossils and its meteorites. Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images

In the US, if you find a meteorite on your land, you own it.

And if you buy a meteorite from someone who found it on their land, you legally own it too.

But the US government has stated that no matter who finds a meteorite on public lands, it belongs to the Smithsonian Institute.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that some countries have laws that make it illegal to export meteorites.

In Namibia, for example, it is illegal to export Gibeon meteorites.

Some items are still exported, so it’s worth checking where the meteorite was actually found.

If you are based in the UK and do happen to find a meteorite, it's worth getting in touch with the Natural History Museum, as your discovery could provide a real contribution to the scientific study of the Universe.

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And not many people can say that.

Authors

Garry E. Hunt is a former NASA Scientist who was a co-host on BBC's The Sky at Night for over 20 years.
Garry HuntScientist

Garry E. Hunt is a former NASA Scientist who was a co-host on BBC's The Sky at Night for over 20 years.

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