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A Space Rock Fell Into Sweden. Who Owns It on Earth?

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The iron rock’s journey from the depths of space ended with a thud in a dense pine forest, about an hour north of Stockholm, around 10 on a November night four years ago.

Unusually, its trajectory was caught on several cameras in the region used to track meteoroids. That led to a weekslong hunt and an even longer court battle over an unusual question: Who owns an unearthly object that falls to Earth?

The legal case took another turn on Thursday, when an appeals court ruled in favor of the landowner, overturning a decision that had sided with the two men who had recovered the meteorite.

Days after the rock landed, Anders Zetterqvist, a geologist, found the site where it first hit the ground. After several weeks of searching, his friend, Andreas Forsberg, a fellow geologist, found the 30-pound chunk sticking out of the moss where it had ricocheted, about 230 feet away.

“It was the find of a lifetime for me,” he said. “It was so spectacular. And to know that it was just a couple of weeks old.”

Most meteoroids that make it to the Earth’s atmosphere burn up on entry, leaving only a trace of light, called a meteor, in the sky. The meteorite north of Stockholm, made of iron, was the 10th fresh-fall meteorite — newly landed, rather than older and buried in the ground — to have been found in Sweden, and one of only a handful of fresh-fall iron meteorites found in the world, Mr. Forsberg said.

After a few weeks, the men took the rock to the Swedish Museum of Natural History, where it has been held since 2020.

“We were afraid that hundreds of people from all over would show up to search for more,” Mr. Forsberg added. “Better and bigger pieces could leave the country before we knew it.”

Dan Holtstam, a senior researcher in the museum’s department of geosciences, said, “It’s a textbook example of an iron meteorite.”

“Falls of iron meteorites are rare globally — this is the only observed fall of an iron meteorite in Sweden,” Dr. Holtstam added. “In almost 40 years in geoscience, it was the first time I laid my hands on a newly fallen meteorite.”

In addition to their scientific value, meteorites are prized by collectors. In the global market of private collectors, one like this could garner tens of thousands of dollars, Dr. Holtstam said.

About a week after the geologists went public with their find, the owner of the estate where the meteorite had been found, Johan Benzelstierna von Engestrom, sent a letter to the museum claiming ownership.

The legal battle ensued.

Laws regulating the ownership of found meteorites vary from country to country. In Sweden, there are none. In France and Morocco, on the other hand, “the first to put his or her hands on it has ownership of it,” Dr. Holtstam said. In Denmark, they are state property.

In December 2022, the Uppsala District Court ruled in favor of the geologists, deeming the meteorite movable property. “A newly fallen meteorite is not part of the property on which it has landed,” the judge wrote in a statement.

The landowner appealed. On Thursday, the appeals court in Stockholm ruled in his favor.

Judge Robert Green, one of four judges on the case, said the appeals court’s ruling turned on two questions: whether meteorites could be considered “immovable” property and the extent of a Swedish customary law, known as “Allemansrätten,” that provides the right of public access.

Laws applying to immovable property — houses and land — are clear, the judge said.

“The point of departure regarding immovable property is that the landowner has the right to it,” he said in an interview Friday. “But we have no specific law regarding meteorites, which made this case special.”

Allemansrätten entitles everyone in Sweden to move around in nature, including to hike, bike or camp, even on private property.

“That includes some right to take berries and even small rocks from other people’s property,” Judge Green said.

The plaintiffs argued that the right to pick up small things could include amber and more valuable items. But Judge Green said in the ruling, “We have made the assessment that the closest thing to hand is to consider meteorites or space rocks as part of immovable property just like other stones, even though it may intuitively feel like a meteorite is something foreign to the earth.”

One judge dissented, arguing that while the meteorite should be regarded as immovable property, in this case, the customary law also applied, and should be interpreted to include the right to take a meteorite from private property.

“Allemansratt has far-reaching implications for everyone so it was interesting and important for us to try this,” Judge Green said.

Mr. Benzelstierna von Engestrom praised the ruling, saying in an interview, “I want to retain ownership of it but give it to a Swedish museum on permanent loan.”

He did not specify which museum, but said that he wanted it to benefit the public.

The geologists have not decided whether to appeal to Sweden’s Supreme Court.

Mr. Forsberg said they were disappointed by the appellate decision.

“It’s very sad for me and my friend,” he said. “I’ve been passionate about collecting rocks and fossils my whole life.” He added: “It’s sad for all of the enthusiasts that are interested in finding new meteorites. If people don’t think they’ll get a reward, how are we going to get people out searching?”

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