Meteorites found in Canada cannot be removed from the country without a permit

Catch a shooting star if you can and put it in your pocket, but don’t try to cross international borders with it, lest you break some little-known Canadian law.

A US museum will have to navigate the twists and turns of this law if it tries to buy portions of a meteorite that allegedly landed in New Brunswick last month.

A fireball streaked through 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 University of Alberta professor and curator of its meteorite collection, said getting the asteroid fragments wouldn’t be as simple as making a bid.

“In Canada, all meteorites are automatically considered Canadian cultural property under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act,” he said in an interview.

A screenshot of Professor Chris Herd from the University of Alberta sharing tricks of the trade on how to spot a real space rock in a video on the university’s meteorites website. (University of Alberta)

“Let’s imagine an American comes in and finds (the meteorite) that he has to apply to export it from Canada. He can’t actually take it out of Canada unless he has an approved export permit.”

The museum in Bethel, Maine has openly expressed interest in obtaining some of the space junk if found.

Darryl Pitt, head of the museum’s meteorite division, said Doppler radar readings suggest the meteorite – which most likely originated in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter – was likely scattered over the part of New Brunswick at horse on Maine.

“Could easily be worth its weight in gold”

The museum’s interest extends beyond the first 1 kg meteorite; a press release said he would purchase any additional specimens found.

“Depending on what type of meteorite it is, the specimens could easily be worth their weight in gold,” Pitt said.

Herd said meteorites can be identified by a dark brown or black glassy outer crust that resembles an eggshell, he said.

“It’s a telltale sign that it passed through Earth’s atmosphere from space,” he said, noting that they’re usually dense and surprisingly heavy.

A man outdoors smiling.  He wears a blue jacket and a red baseball cap.
Darryl Pitt, head of the meteorite division at the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum, says even a small meteorite specimen is “worth its weight in gold.” (Submitted by Darryl Pitt)

Anyone who finds a whole or partial meteorite on public property must complete an export application that is reviewed by an expert examiner, said Herd, who is one of several such experts in Canada.

“The expert reviewer could then say, ‘well, this has outstanding potential significance and national significance,'” he said.

“If the expert reviewer says, ‘Oh, I think that’s significant and important,’ then (Canada Border Services) will recommend denial of the export permit.”

The file is then forwarded to a cultural property export review board, which may disagree with the expert reviewer 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 at a fair price, he said.

Violators could face fines or jail time

Anyone who takes a meteorite out of Canada without the required permit can be subject to fines of up to $25,000, up to five years in prison, or both.

Despite his open interest in purchasing the meteorite, Pitt said the Minerals and Gemstone Museum is well aware of the regulations it must follow to obtain surfaced fragments.

“The museum should always do due diligence … to find out if the meteorite was legally obtained before actually acquiring it,” Herd said.

“If it’s coming from outside the United States, as it would be in this scenario, then they would have to… make sure the person exported it legally from Canada.”

Pitt said the responsibility for obtaining an export permit rests with anyone who finds a meteor. For his 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 we can come to an agreement with our Canadian friends so that a sample can arrive at the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum.”

Herd said he made a deal with a US dealer for a piece of the Grimsby meteorite that fell in the Niagara region of southern Ontario in 2009.

Since Canada is a vast country, Herd said thousands of meteorites may have fallen in remote locations.

“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.”

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