China just discovered a shocking loophole in its law on importing space rocks

The Nature Conservancy is demanding an apology from the Chinese state after discovering what appears to be a truly massive mistake by Chinese customs: The agents confiscated a collection of meteorites considered to be “pyrite,” not meteorites.

And the admission may not be bad enough to fully undo the damage. In addition to the meteorites, the organization was allegedly out over $70,000 in natural resources, and that shortfall amounts to more than all the expenses charged to the park associated with one of its 20 one-of-a-kind landscapes.

Meteorites are vast, beautiful objects that are old enough to be carbon-dating the exact moment in the universe the meteors struck the surface. Unlike meteorites, which typically miss their intended target and strike hard Earth surfaces, meteorites can carry pure oxygen, preventing them from collapsing in upon themselves, like a meteor shower. Meteorites can weigh hundreds of tons or even include well-preserved Earth tectonic plates.

Like any other object, they are subject to legal limits on imports and exports and are designated “opium” if processed into a hard substance. So it’s hardly a stretch to believe that if a standard quantity of gold or rhodium — and sometimes even silver — were put into a meteorite, then it could meet the technical definition of “opium.”

The land in question — the Tang Tai National Park, located along the Gobi Desert — is perfect as a showcase for this valuable classification. Credited for being the only national park in China where the Martian samples were returned by NASA, the landscape is topped with a 67-metre-tall lightning tower that even makes snow seem inadequate.

Yet from the get-go, the police service confiscated not a single meteorite, but rather 19 fine specimens of at least 100 grams in colorless, rough mineral form. The total haul is enough to finish a dinner for three at Panera Bread, even if it comes with a dry-aged porterhouse.

Read more at Quartz.

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