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Find a piece of space debris? You could face charges in Florida if you try to keep it

Two bills introduced during the 2021 legislative session look to create penalties against those who refuse to return high-value space parts.
Credit: Janille Turner via Outer Banks Voice
Park Service maintenance staff hauled the debris off the beach Monday.

FLORIDA, USA — Editors' Note: The photo above is a piece of spacecraft debris found in 2018.

You know the old saying "finders, keepers"? Well, that doesn't apply to items from space.

Two bills introduced to the Florida legislature, if passed, would mean anyone who doesn't report finding pieces of spacecraft after re-entry in the state could face charges.

SB 936 and HB 221 are rooted in the recovery of spaceflight assets as major agencies and companies continue to turn to reusable spacecraft to carry out activity beyond Earth's atmosphere.

RELATED: SpaceX loses another Starship prototype during failed landing

Take SpaceX for example; part of the purpose of the company founded by Elon Musk is to enhance the commercial and reusable aspects of space.

Some of its Falcon 9 rockets have carried out missions in the double digits into space, all while autonomously landing back on the company's droneships.

But as we saw on March 26, not everything always goes according to plan. A Falcon 9 rocket second stage that missed its deorbit burn put on a light show over the Pacific Northwest after reentering the atmosphere.

Then there's the normal occurrence of doors being jettisoned off spacecraft during splashdown to allow parachute deployment.

Under the proposed bills, the spaceflight entity to which these major parts belong to will retain ownership upon re-entry "regardless of the physical condition or location." The only noted exception is if the company clearly indicates it wishes to abandon the part.

The legislation would also require any items found by members of the public to be reported to a local law enforcement agency, which in turn is responsible to notify the company for recovery.

RELATED: Science behind the streaking rocket debris that wowed Pacific Northwest

If you should refuse to surrender the item you'd be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor which carries a penalty of up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine in the state of Florida

A court would also be required to order an individual who refused to turn over the spacecraft part to pay restitution in the case that the asset was damaged or unable to be recovered.

Items that apply to the bill are things like crewed and uncrewed capsules, launch vehicles, parachutes, landing gear, and any ancillary equipment.

Sen. Tom Wright, one of the bill's sponsors, hopes it will make Florida more friendly and desirable to other space companies.

During a Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security, the senator said the goal is to "keep Florida the spaceport of the world" and help allow companies to "feel more comfortable that we are protecting them.”

And if you're scratching you're head, trying to believe that people intentionally recover spacecraft items to either keep or sell online-- it happens.

RELATED: 'Not what we were anticipating': Boaters surround SpaceX capsule at splashdown

“Some of the parts, when we come back in for descent of the capsule, they have to jettison a door in order for the parachutes to deploy and it’s well-marked," Wright said. "And what’s happened is they’ve been picked up by boaters that have unfortunately gone out in the area of recovery and really caused an issue and then they’ve attempted to sell that item on eBay.”

Last August, the splashdown of the historic Crew Dragon capsule was hampered when private boaters swarmed the recovery area. Images from the incident showed at least 20 boats surrounding the capsule with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside.

"That was not what we were anticipating," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a news conference, at the time.

Plus, don't forget the scramble to recover the pieces of the Space Shuttle Columbia after it broke up upon re-entry within 16 minutes of landing, according to NASA.

Any debris found was not allowed to be touched and was required to be reported to government authorities. Anyone in possession of the accident debris was under the pressure of being "prosecuted to the full extent of the law" if they attempted to keep it.

The FBI says crews recovered more than 84,000 pieces or about 38 percent of the spacecraft in their search.

RELATED: NASA, SpaceX sign safety agreement that relies on Starlink satellite technology to avoid collisions

Jeffery Sharkey, identified as representing SpaceX, backs the bill, saying the parts are intellectual property and that "it’s super important that this goes back to the space launch company and doesn’t end up on eBay.”

The managing partner at Capitol Alliance Group added that the bill "will really help [SpaceX] understand that Florida cares about that intellectual property and will protect it.”

On each bill's respective track, HB 221 has been added to the second reading calendar on the House floor, while SB 936 currently sits in appropriations.

Should either bill pass, it will take effect on July 1, 2021.

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