The moon is huge, and it’s not very far away in the grand scheme of things. With with uncountable trillions of tons of “moon” out there, you wouldn’t think tiny pieces it would be so valuable, but humanity has only managed to bring a tiny bit of lunar material back to Earth. Almost all of that is considered the property of either the United States or Russian governments, but an extremely rare sample of the moon just sold at private auction. The price? A mere $855,000.
NASA used every Apollo mission in the 1960s and 70s to bring back a crate of moon rocks. Between the six manned landings, NASA collected 842 pounds (382 kg) of lunar material. The unmanned Soviet Luna landers sent back a further 10.6 ounces (310 grams). It’s clearly easier to collect rocks when you have a person who can pick up and heave them into a bin.
When moon rocks show up for private sale, they usually end up being fake or stolen. The US government is particularly strict about private ownership of lunar material. In 2011, a small sample of moon dust collected from a film canister and affixed to tape went up for sale. The Justice Department swooped in and asserted government ownership, and the seller relinquished it. So, from where does this ultra-rare legal sample come?
The newly auctioned moon fragments came to Earth aboard the Soviet Luna 16 return rocket, the first automated probe to return a sample from the lunar surface. The sample consists of three tiny fragments of feldspar crystals with a mass of just a few milligrams. They’re encased in a 5.1 x 5.1 cm block of metal with a small window. There’s also an integrated magnifying glass to offer a better look at the sample. Below the window, Russian text proclaims the fragments to be “SOIL PARTICLES FROM LUNA-16.”
This may be the only privately owned piece of the moon thanks to one Sergei Korolev. For years, Korolev was the chief designers for the Soviet space program. He’s credited with the first satellite launch, the first animal launched into space, and the first manned launch. However, the Soviet Union believed his contributions were so important, his existence had to be a closely guarded secret. Some of the Cosmonauts he worked with didn’t even know his last name.
Following Korolev’s unexpected death from cancer in 1966, the Soviet government gave his widow 200 mg of lunar soil in thanks for his service. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the fragments were auctioned in 1993 by Sotheby’s in New York. Sotheby’s also handled the latest auction. At $855,000, it’s safe to say these are the most expensive rocks in the world by mass.
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