This is a question I’ve been thinking about but I have no law experience so I wanted to ask it here.

Suppose an high valued (suppose billions of dollars) asteroid/meteorite falls and lands on the earth. The question is: who gets to claim ownership of it?

Scenario 1: It lands in John Smiths yard. Is it now John Smiths? Or does it belong to the government that John Smith belongs to?

Scenario 2: It lands in international waters. Is it a free for all?

Scenario 3: It lands on one of the poles. Same as 2?

  • This very much depends on where in the world it lands. In some places it can land on private property, be discovered by some third party and they can claim ownership...
    – Ron Beyer
    Dec 12, 2021 at 15:36
  • While I know the relevant common law rules (primarily the rule of capture and the rule pertaining to fixtures and appurtenances to real property, and possibly admiralty rules governing mineral rights and prizes), I am not confident that there are not special rules of which I am unaware governing this case, and of course, choice of law based upon where it landed would matter too. The rule of law might vary if it landed in Russia or China or Saudi Arabia or England or France.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 12, 2021 at 21:34

2 Answers 2


National territory

It depends on the nation. Some countries or jurisdictions have specific laws about meteorites, like the Western Australia Museum Act 1969, ss. 43-45, which provides that meteorites are Crown property (there are many meteorites in the Nullarbor Plain). Absent any specific rule like this, meteorites are likely to be treated in any of the following ways -

  1. It's a rock. Mineral rights (which often go along with ownership of the land in general, but can be separately assigned) may apply to meteorites on the grounds (haha) that they are rocks which can be treated as part of the land on which they fell. There may be special law vesting certain kinds of mineral finds in the State, should you be dealing with a meteorite made of gold, for example. Mineral law is a specialist topic even within national law, so the exact answer here may depend on a lot of factors - what the thing is made of, whether it's above ground or not, etc. - but the probable starting point is that rocks from space are no different in law from the rocks that were already there.
  2. It's an object that has no clear owner. There are longstanding principles for "unowned things" in civil and common law systems, typically applying to wild animals or other things that are naturally occurring and not part of the land as such. If a meteorite is "res nullius" in this sense, then it might belong to the finder or to the landowner, depending on exactly which flavor of legal tradition is followed.
  3. It's a valuable find. There are similar rules about "treasure trove", for example in the United Kingdom which gives rights to the Crown. But a meteorite would not be classed as treasure in the UK, because it is an "unworked natural object". Other jurisdictions might draw these boundaries differently.
  4. It's an object of scientific importance. A meteorite might be classed as "cultural property" within the meaning of the U.N. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 , as transposed into local law. The Convention covers "rare collections and specimens of [...] minerals", and objects of paleontological or archaeological interest. This could affect somebody's ability to export or destroy the object (for the latter, see also the 2003 UNESCO Declaration which includes "cultural heritage linked to a natural site"). National law might contain its own similar provisions.

International waters and the poles

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, Part XI governs mineral exploitation in "the Area", meaning the part of the seabed that does not belong to any nation. Activities of this kind are meant to be under the auspices of the International Seabed Authority, which has copious rules about application and approval, navigation, environmental controls, and so on - subject to the Convention principle of treating the seabed as "the common heritage of mankind". This Area includes the North Pole.

The South Pole is part of the area covered by the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, 1991, which provides in its Article 7 that

Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.

In practice, as in international law generally, States might do all sorts of other things. But this is the broad legal position. It might be that States would agree a special regime applicable to the totally unprecedented circumstances, or that it would be a free-for-all.

Again, I'm assuming that the applicable principles for digging up a space rock for commercial purposes are the same as for other kinds of rock. There is international law about space rocks when they are in space, and about human-made objects when they crash down to Earth, but seemingly no special provision for meteorites.

  • About your first point: A court might also rule that mineral rights only apply to only rocks that existed on the lot prior to the acquisition of the rights. In other words, if DeBeers bought the rights to diamonds on my property in 1910, they'd have the right to any diamonds on my property that were there in 1910. But if a meteorite full of diamonds lands on my property, the diamonds from the meteorite belong to me.
    – moonman239
    Dec 13, 2021 at 16:34

A meteorite worth more than a few million or ten million dollars is likely not possible to be found on Earth after impact without a globally catastrophic event, and the particular question of a meteorite of “billions of dollars” therefore is about an impossible hypothetical

For a meteor to be worth at least $1B, it has to have a weight on the order of magnitude of 12,000 tonnes. (see reference below)

A comparable size meteor would be the Chelyabinsk one which had an approximate weight of between 11,000-13,000 tonnes upon entry; however, the heavier the asteroid the greater the explosion it creates upon entry which should probably result in less matter to remain in a condition that allows for its monetization or obtaining in the first place. The Chelyabinsk created an explosion of about 400-500 kilotons or 26-33 times the energy released in the nuclear explosion of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In 1908, during the Tunguska event, a much larger explosion of about 12,000 kilotons was recorded where the meteor had about 9 times the volume (and likely proportionally larger mass) of the Chelyabinsk meteor. According to its Wikipedia article:

“It is classified as an impact event, even though no impact crater has been found; the object is thought to have disintegrated at an altitude of 5 to 10 kilometres (3 to 6 miles) rather than to have hit the surface of the Earth.”

For that much of mass to remain, if possible at all, after the impact, likely, you would need something closer to the asteroid that rendered almost all life in the animal kingdom on Earth extinct 65 million years ago, and in that sense, the question, in its scale, hypothesizes an impossible scenario.

The above is important because negligible probability of an event is the basis of a general legislative practice not to regulate a hypothetical scenario while the judiciary will not take up a case at all merely on a hypothetical in common law jurisdictions while civil law jurisdictions, for constitutional norm control or to similar ends, will not take up a case without at least passed law that a constitutional or supreme court would suspect unconstitutional.

  1. Considering smaller space objects, a high-value meteorite of approximately $100,000, and the sixth largest in Michigan apparently was not disputed on grounds of ownership by the government despite its publicity which suggest that neither the State of Michigan, nor the U.S. government or under any international treaty, no international body like the UN had claim on the rock. In Michigan, it probably belongs to John Smith. An article on Space.com reads:

“[In early 2018], [a] man who purchased [a] farm in 1988 and obtained [a] meteorite as part of the property brought the space rock to Central Michigan University (CMU) for examination.”

I would assume CMU knew the protocol, and there appears to have been no action taken to confiscate the rock from the man.

Similar cases when finders sold their meteorite are known from other states, like Connecticut states in Australia, provinces in Canada, and other countries like Costa Rica, Indonesia etc.

  1. Based on 1, there appears to be no international law, therefore its probably “free for all”.

  2. Sovereign states have claims on certain areas of the poles, and special international treaties are also applicable. Likely each jurisdiction should be considered separately to answer this question and that is beyond the scope of a single question to answer.

Additional reference for the downvoters:

The highest valued meteorite was sold for €1.7M euros, or about $1.9M with a weight of about 1 metric ton which translates to about $2 per gram despite its rare composition indicating an inversely proportional correlation between rock size and per gram dollar worth — the Indonesian meteorite ca. 2 kg’s was reported to be valued at $850/gram although likely sold for orders of magnitude less. Bottom line, the bigger the rock, the lesser it is worth per gram, and over a size the bigger the meteor, the likelier it is that it will explode and bigger the explosion will be no later than on impact with the surface of Earth, and the bigger the released energy the more mass will melt and evaporate upon and after impact. The higher the expected worth of a meteorite is the logarithmically less likely it is that it is even possible.

  • 2
    Whether a meteorite worth a billion dollars can survive striking the earth is not relevant to the question; it's a hypothetical, which means that you assume things that may be counterfactual in order to illustrate a point of law. It is only relevant that the meteorite be highly valuable. Furthermore, the assertion "for a meteor to be worth at least $1B, it has to have a weight on the order of magnitude of 12,000 tonnes" is not necessarily correct; the meteorite could have some additional scientific value, such as being suspected of having come from somewhere particularly interesting.
    – phoog
    Dec 13, 2021 at 11:41
  • It is just as much as a ruling that results in an absurd outcome; the reason why is what OP probably assumed: The status quo that governments do not challenge the ownership is usually because of the small value. An “asteroid/meteorite” that’s worth three or more billion dollars could reasonably expected to overwrite customary and relevant decisional law out of the conflict of interest of a government so as to be confiscated from the finder if it was possible. The value assumed is off by a factor of +2,000, scientific interest will not counter the discrepancy as thats always the value basis
    – kisspuska
    Dec 13, 2021 at 15:16

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