I’ve seen occasional news reports about meteor trafficking for quite some time now, and if I’m perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure what to think about it all. On one hand, the prospect of important scientific discoveries being lost is bad news whichever way you look at it. On the other hand, who gets to claim ownership of something which falls from the sky?
Now, first off, I am one of those scientists who can benefit directly from meteorite research. Discovering complex chemicals inside meteorites is almost on par with finding them in space. When you’re studying the chemistry of something as unknown as the interstellar medium, believe me, helpful results are worth their weight in gold. The trouble is that, to a collector with enough money, the meteorites themselves can be worth more than gold.
So the big problem, as far as I can see, is that scientific researchers are now having to compete against private collectors for meteorite samples — and as anyone working at a university will tell you, funding isn’t always easy to come by. Collectors are likely to offer a higher bid. So is science really losing out?
I have to say, in my opinion, there’s an awful lot of melodrama surrounding this affair. The apparent “problem” is most evident in North Africa. Nomadic people comb the desert sands, where meteorites are easy to find. They then take these otherworldly stones to markets in cities like Nouadhibou, Mauritania to sell them on. So these people are simply collecting things which are freely available to all and selling them on to make a living. Branding them as “enemies of science”, then, seems a touch unjustified.
It’s questionable, though, how much science is actually losing out from all of this. After all, the potential for finding meteorites in the Sahara wasn’t actually realised until the 1980s. In fact, all of the news articles seem a little hazy about the whole thing. They refer to these people as smugglers, but they don’t seem to elaborate on how the act constitutes smuggling. Are there any actual restrictions on exporting meteorites from these countries? If not, I’m not sure any complaint is actually justifiable. You could just as easily argue that if those local scientists want to collect more meteorites, perhaps they should go on expeditions to find them. Or alternatively, perhaps they could make arrangements to purchase them from the nomads who collect them. Either way, simply saying “you can’t have that, because I want it” is a questionable ethic.
Meteorite collecting is nothing new, although it’s snowballing in popularity thanks to the internet. I’m loathe to use clichéed terms like “global marketplace,” but sites like ebay do make it very easy to sell meteorites worldwide. And although small fragments can sell for as low as £1 (if you know where to look), large collections are expected to sell for as much as half a million!
On the other hand, meteorites can be over 4 billion years old, predating planet Earth itself. Researching them is important. Particularly seeing as studying meteorites is a bit like playing a lottery. You never know quite what you might find. Every next one studied might provide some fantastic new insight into the formation of the solar system.
So… It seems we’re left with a question. Is space rock piracy really theft? Or is it just meteorite infringement?