Meteorites in Australia – The legal aspects
Meteorites are exciting because they are rocks that come from space. They are of interest to the public as well as to researchers studying the origin and evolution of the solar system. Because meteorites fall from space, determining the ownership of the rock can be confusing. Different countries have different rules about who owns a meteorite.
In many countries (e.g. USA, UK) the meteorite is the property of the owner of the land on which it is found or falls. It can be bought or sold or retained in private collections. In the case that a meteorite falls on publicly owned land, the meteorite is the property of the government. In the USA, this means it would go to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and in the UK it would go to the Natural History Museum. In other countries, all meteorites belong to the government and, thus, are housed in official museum meteorite collections only. This benefits everybody because anybody can view these rare space rocks.
In Australia, ownership is dependent on the state in which the meteorite is found or falls. In four states (WA, SA, NT, and Tas) meteorites are required to be housed in an official state repository (i.e. The state’s museum).
In Western Australia, the Museum Act (1969) includes Legislation Concerning Meteorites. The law states that meteorites found (or observed to fall) in Western Australia belong to the State, and the Trustees of the Western Australian Museum become the custodians. Essentially, it is illegal to remove meteorites from the State of Western Australia without the permission of the Trustees, other than to deliver them to the Trustees.
If a meteorite is found or falls in any of these four states, it is the legal obligation of the finder to deliver it to the Trustee’s of the state museum.
In Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, there are no specific laws covering the ownership of meteorites. The meteorite is generally the property of the landowner. In the event the land is government owned, then the meteorite is the property of the government and will go to the local state museum.
Another area where meteorites are subject to laws is the import and export of extraterrestrial material. Moving meteorites out of different countries varies from country to country around the world. In Australia, Federal legislation under the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act (1986), prohibits the unauthorised export of meteorites from (any state) Australia. It is illegal to export Australian meteorites without proper documentation and approvals. Export, if allowed, requires either an export permit, or a letter of clearance. Museums in Australia have special permission to send meteorites to researchers out of the country.
The Desert Fireball Network’s (DFN) Relationship with Museums
Planning for the DFN began in 1997 as a collaborative project between researchers from universities, an observatory and the Western Australian museum. As the project took shape and prototyping was successful, Professor Phil Bland won a highly competitive Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellowship to establish the autonomous digital camera network project based at Curtin University in Perth. Funding for non-commercial research projects in Australia usually comes from the federal government and is regulated under strict guidelines and reporting procedures.
In 2012, the community outreach project Fireballs in the Sky was established by Curtin University, with Inspiring Australia funding and in-kind support from many institutions including both the Western Australian Museum and South Australian Museum.
The Desert Fireball Network has always been a multi-institutional collaborative project. Most successful science projects rely on efficient working relationships between institutions with common goals, for sharing both ideas and resources. One of the aims of the DFN is to recover and study freshly fallen Australian meteorites that have been caught on the network’s cameras. In order to do this efficiently and gain the best scientific data, the Curtin University researchers of the DFN team have an ongoing agreement with the Western Australian and South Australian museums.
Ethical obligations as researchers
The researchers associated with the Desert Fireball Network (as well as meteorite researchers around Australia and the world) love the science they do and are interested in the meteorites as research specimens to further understanding of where meteorites come from in space, the geologic context of the asteroid belt and the history of the Solar System. The camera network has been set up to track incoming fireballs. The meteorites we recover are collected in as pristine a condition as possible, with all relevant find details recorded with the idea in mind that all recovered meteorites will eventually be housed in museums in their respective states. Meteorites that fall in states without specific laws for such rocks will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Museums with meteorite collections in Australia (not a complete list)