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In Malta, a moon-rock caper

"I would not be surprised if half of those 135 moon rocks have been stolen, or lost, or are now in a position where they could be stolen."- Joseph Gutheinz, retired NASA investigator

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Just a few months ago NASA confiscated a moon rock being offered on eBay which turned out to be fake, says Gary Lofgren, NASA's moon-rock curator. And recently, Dr. Lofgren was shown a sample that a major auction house had planned to place on the block last week.

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"I had to tell them it was not a lunar sample," he says.

Goodwill rocks aside, the vast majority of lunar rocks are safe. NASA keeps its moon rocks under lock and key, and all but about 1 ounce of its 842 pounds of the rocks, pebbles, and dust brought back by the astronauts is accounted for, the space agency says. Dr. Lofgren's computerized inventory tracks every stone loaned out for scientific research or exhibit. What about that missing 1 ounce? It got lost in the mail, Lofgren says.

Apollo moon rocks aren't the only ones that have journeyed to Earth. Russia's three robotic lunar missions returned about 3/4 of a pound of specimens. And, in the only known legitimate moon-rock sale, Sotheby's in 1993 auctioned off three specks of Russian moon rock, weighing less than 1/100ths of an ounce, for $442,000, says Robert Pearlman, editor and founder of collectSPACE.com, a source for space-memorabilia enthusiasts.

But the Apollo moon rocks are the most desirable because of the emotional connection millions of people made when they watched on TV as astronauts collected the rocks, Mr. Pearlman says. He notes that the market for space collectibles has boosted interest in moon rocks. A piece of Apollo gravel weighing 4/100ths of an ounce would be conservatively worth $1 million, Pearlman estimates. That's roughly four times the price of a diamond that size.

Like Gutheinz, Pearlman worries that many museums don't realize the value of the moon rocks Nixon gave as gifts three decades ago. So he, too, has begun a project to find the goodwill moon rocks - tracking down just 16 so far.

Disappointed, he reports several moon rocks on display but without any serious security arrangements, while others gather dust in storage. Still others are long gone, he says. News reports in 1998, for instance, suggested that Romania's moon rock may have been auctioned off with the possessions of former dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu.

For his part, Pearlman eagerly awaits the day when large loads of moon rocks are brought back by private space ventures for individual ownership. Until then, aficionados must content themselves with tektites - small, glassy bodies found in isolated places around the world and worth about 50 cents at any rock shop. Such specimens could be from the moon - or from meteorites - but nobody knows for sure, Pearlman says.

Technically, one can buy a piece of the moon, albeit an ephemeral one. Apollo astronaut turned artist Alan Bean sprinkles lunar particles onto his paintings, culled from dust that stuck to his spacesuit. Other moon flecks have been given as NASA retirement gifts - including a 1-inch piece of transparent tape covered with moon dust, which the recipient cut up and auctioned off. Pearlman paid $5,000 for a tiny piece of moon tape - and he was not the only one.

The magic of moon particles seems to act like pixie dust on collectors. "If I can't visit the moon, at least I can hold a piece of it in my hand," Pearlman says. "My ultimate hope is that someday I will be able to own a moon rock myself."

Until then, as Sam Spade might say, it appears that moon rocks remain the stuff that dreams are made of.

Moon-rock memorabilia

• From 1969-72, six Apollo moon missions collected 842 pounds of rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand, and dust.

• Intense heat and a notable absence of water forged the three types of moon rocks: basalts (lava rocks), anorthosites (light rocks), and breccias (composite rocks). Unlike soggy Earth, the moon has no sandstones, shales, or limestones.

• On its last manned flight to the moon, NASA finally sent a true rock hunter - geologist Harrison Schmitt. Unsurprisingly, Apollo 17 brought back more rock samples than any other mission to the moon.

• Were it legal to sell one, a one-gram moon pebble (less than 4/100ths of an ounce) would fetch $1 million or more - while a top-quality diamond of equal size commands a relatively modest $250,000.

SOURCES: NASA, DiamondRegistry.com

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