Catch a falling star if you can, and by all means put it in your pocket, but don’t try to cross international borders with it lest you run afoul of a little-known Canadian law.
An American museum will have to navigate that law’s intricacies should it try to buy portions of a meteorite believed to have landed in New Brunswick last month.
A fireball ripped through the Earth’s atmosphere on April 8 and landed somewhere in the province, prompting the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum to offer a US$25,000 reward for the first one kilogram meteorite recovered.
But Chris Herd, a professor at the University of Alberta and curator of its meteorite collection, said obtaining the asteroid fragments won’t be as simple as making an offer.
“In Canada, all meteorites are considered Canadian cultural property automatically through the Cultural Property Export and Import Act,” he said in an interview. “… ”If it’s public property, say an American comes in and finds (the meteorite,) they have to apply to export it from Canada. They may not actually take it out of Canada unless they have an approved export permit.“
The museum in Bethel, Maine, has openly expressed interest in obtaining some of the space debris if and when it’s found.
Darryl Pitt, head of the museum’s meteorite division, said doppler radar readings suggest the meteorite – which most likely originated from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter – was likely scattered over the part of New Brunswick straddling Maine.
The museum’s interest also extends beyond just the first 1-kg meteorite; a news release said it will buy any additional specimens found.
“Depending on the type of meteorite this is, specimens could easily be worth their weight in gold,” Pitt said.
Herd said meteorites can be identified by a dark brown or black outer glassy crust that resembles an eggshell, he said.
“That’s a telltale sign that it’s come through the Earth’s atmosphere from space,” he said, noting they’re usually dense and surprisingly heavy.
The person who finds a whole or partial meteorite on public property must complete an export application that’s reviewed by an expert examiner, said Herd, who is one of several in Canada.
“The expert examiner then might say, ‘well, this is of potential outstanding significance and national importance,”’ he said.
“If the expert examiner says, ‘Oh, I think this is significant, and important,’ then (the Canadian Border Services) will recommend refusal of the export permit.”
The file then goes to a cultural property export review board, which can disagree with the expert examiner and let the meteorite be exported. Alternatively, it can impose a six-month embargo period during which Canadian institutions can offer to buy the meteorite for a fair market price, he said.
Anyone taking a meteorite out of Canada without the requisite permit can face fines of up to $25,000, as much as five years in prison or both.
Despite its open interest in purchasing the meteorite, Pitt said the Mineral and Gem Museum is well aware of the regulations it must follow to obtain any fragments that surface.
“The museum should always do due diligence … as to whether the meteorite was obtained legally before they actually acquire it,” Herd said.
“If it comes from outside of the U.S., as would be the case in this scenario, then they would need to do their due diligence and make sure that the person exported it legally from Canada.”
Pitt said the responsibility of obtaining an export permit lies with whoever finds a meteor. For its part, he said the museum would “immediately get in touch” with Herd to help broker a deal.
“If Canada wants it, it’s Canadian,” he said. “I hope that we could arrive at an agreement with our Canadian friends so that a sample of it could come to the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum.”
Herd said he made a deal with an American dealer for a piece of the Grimsby meteorite that fell in southern Ontario’s Niagara region in 2009.
“They realized they weren’t going to be able to get it exported because it was a unique fall,” he said.
Since Canada is a vast country, Herd said thousands of meteorites may have fallen in remote places.
“I don’t think we would actually know how many of them are anywhere in Canada. But they are part of Canada’s natural history. The law is there for a reason.”