When a meteorite hit the ground in Egypt in the 13th century, the question of what to do with it was easily answered - make a dagger out of it and give it to King Tut. The question today of who owns space objects is less-easily answered and likely to involve some litigation. For example, when a meteorite hit a clinic in suburban Virginia in 2010, a dispute arose between the doctors and the landlord about who owed the rock. After some legal research and novel arguments, the doctors were able to donate the rock to the Smithsonian and donate the finders fee to Doctors Without Borders.
In honor of Space Law Month here at the Harris County Law Library, we thought we would assemble a few resources to help answer the unusual question of who owns a celestial chattel. As with the answer to many legal questions, the answer starts with "it depends," so here are resources for a few scenarios.
Natural Objects Naturally Falling to Earth
The question of ownership over space rocks that fall from the sky seems to be jurisdictional in nature. In his 2002 article in Meteorites & Planetary Science, Canadian lawyer Douglas Schmitt provides a survey of laws of various nations applicable to found space objects. Depending on where the rock hits the Earth, it may belong to the finder, the landowner, a government agency, or a national museum. With citation to relevant cases and regulations, Schmitt's article is a great place to start your research.
Natural Objects Brought to Earth
No one is legally entitled to own lunar objects, including moon rocks, pebbles, core samples, or space dust that has been collected in the course of a lunar mission and brought back to Earth. All samples of this type are considered national treasures. One individual, Alan Rosen, learned this lesson the hard way. On a business trip to Honduras in 1995, Mr. Rosen met with a retired Honduran colonel, Roberto Argurcia Ugarte, who had acquired a moon rock and accompanying plaque following a military coup in 1973. The artifact had been given as a gift by President Nixon on behalf of the United States to the people of the Republic of Honduras. Mr. Rosen purchased the moon rock from Colonel Ugarte and brought it back to the United States in violation of 19 U.S. Code § 1595a. Upon learning of Mr. Rosen’s acquisition, the United States sought to seize the artifact in the case known as UNITED STATES of America v. ONE LUCITE BALL CONTAINING LUNAR MATERIAL (One Moon Rock) and One Ten Inch by Fourteen Inch Wooden Plaque Defendant In Rem. Details of the case and the events surrounding Mr. Rosen’s acquisition of this rare space treasure are presented in The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks, along with film footage of astronauts collecting lunar artifacts from the surface of the moon.
Man-made Objects in Space
With an estimated 21,000 bits of space debris now orbiting the Earth (for an excellent visual representation of all this space junk, see James Yoder’s fascinating website, Stuff in Space, a real-time 3D tracking tool of each object’s location, orbit, and speed), issues concerning ownership of satellites and the like can present major legal issues. When confronting these issues, there are different aspects of ownership that might be researched, including who may exert ownership over objects in orbit and who is responsible for damages if those objects do harm. In his 2012 article published in The Space Review, space law attorney Michael Listner provides an overview of laws applicable to both facets of the question. According to Listner, these objects all still belong to the country that launched them under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which seems to clear up the question until one considers the web of arms treaties and quasi-binding conventions and agreements that may also come into play. Listner's article will help jump start your research.
Man-made Objects Naturally Falling to Earth
When man-made objects fall from space, causing personal injury or damage to property, the question arises: Who do we sue and how do we do it? The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects is a good resource to consult, unless of course the space debris is part of a United States vehicle that makes landfall on American soil. In this case, the Federal Tort Claims Act may apply. In either case, the likelihood of confronting this issue is low. Space debris does occasionally fall to Earth, and even small chunks of orbital junk (< 2 inches), can be harmful, but most of the derelict space craft and associated debris poses little risk to those of us on terra firma. Even so, as an intellectual inquiry, the question of what happens to objects hurling through space is well-addressed in this Primer on the Legal Issues Surrounding Space Debris Remediation.
With this blog post, we conclude Space Law Month at the Harris County Law Library. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading and learning about the legal issues surrounding outer space exploration as much as we’ve enjoyed sharing resources with you.