Meteorites: International law and regulations

Max Gounelle, Matthieu Gounelle

Meteoritics & Planetary Science, First Published:  6 October 2019


“Although meteorites are now considered as scientific objects, they still bear a strong and powerful symbolic meaning due to their extraterrestrial provenance. The present article focuses on their legal status, in other words the collection of rules, very diverse in nature, which are applicable to them. Despite a growing international market, the question of meteorites is often ignored or regarded as a detail in international relations and is rarely taken explicitly into account in negotiations and treaties. This relative neglect explains why a non‐State player, the Meteoritical Society, has taken methodological initiatives into meteoritic science and has effectively become a regulator of meteorite naming and acceptance, with a global scope. We show that to understand the legal status of meteorites, it is necessary to consider them under the prism of public international law, transnational law, and national law. We conclude that, despite the universality of meteorites as extraterrestrial objects, the variability of legal rules applicable to meteorites depending onto which territory they fall or where they are found. We note, however, that there is a trend toward regulatory uniformity in the scientific analysis of meteorites, which frames the practices of researchers and regulates traders’ activities. Finally, we contend that a meteorite remains a badly defined legal object, because it can be viewed under many angles: as an object susceptible to private appropriation, as a “common thing” (res communis), or as an element of national heritage.”