In a vacuum chamber at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston, 5.5kg of rocks from the Moon are carefully unloaded for analysis © NASA/JSC

Is it true that Apollo Moon rock samples went missing?

You'd think we'd try to keep hold of something after making a 700,000km round trip to get it.

Apollo 11 was the first mission to bring back samples of rock, soil and dust from the lunar surface but it wasn’t the last. The six Apollo missions that landed on the Moon between 1969 and 1972 returned a total of 382kg of lunar material but, somewhat surprisingly, only a fraction of it has so far found its way into laboratories for analysis.

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Some of the samples collected by Apollo 11 and 17, the first and last missions to land on the Moon, were gifted to each of the 50 states of America and other nations around the world by the Nixon administration. But as of today, the whereabouts of more than half of those gifts cannot be confirmed.

Some have gone missing (such the samples given to Brazil, Canada and Sweden), others have been stolen or sold (including Malta’s and Romania’s) and one was mistaken for debris left behind after a fire and accidentally thrown out (Ireland’s).

The scarcity of the Moon rocks returned by the Apollo astronauts makes them a valuable commodity, and with so many missing and unaccounted for, a lucrative black market has emerged in which the rocks are bought and sold.

Most of the rocks being traded are counterfeit, however. To combat this and attempt to locate some of the missing genuine rocks, an undercover project, called Operation Lunar Eclipse, was set up, led by senior special agent Joseph Gutheinz and to date has managed to recover 78 of the lost samples.

In March 2019, NASA announced it will be opening some of the remaining sealed samples for analysis using the latest technology and methods in order to inform future missions to the Moon.

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