On September 12, 1970, the Soviet Union landed a robot on the moon. The probe, named Luna 16, drilled into the lunar ground for seven minutes and removed around 100 grams — just over one-fourth of a pound — of small moon rocks and fragments from a wide-volcanic plains named the Sea of Fertility. Then, it blasted off back to Earth.
Now, three tiny lunar fragments from the Luna 16 mission are being auctioned to the highest bidder through Sotheby’s. The current owner of the little bits of moon, however, remains anonymous.
It may seem odd that human-gathered lunar fragments fell into private hands — similar to perhaps a prized Picasso or a van Gogh. Indeed, most moon specimens are kept in closely-guarded environs, like most of NASA’s 842 pounds of treasured lunar material.
But these profoundly rare moon fragments are legitimately for sale, and they carry considerable significance.
“It becomes more than a natural sample,” Robert Pearlman, a space historian who runs the website collectSPACE, said in an interview.
“It becomes an artifact of our space exploration efforts,” said Pearlman. “It’s a testament, or touchstone — if you pardon the pun — to the greatest adventure humankind has ever been on.”
The official moon rock auction is set for November 29, and the next owner — like the current one — could remain unknown.
“Winning bidders remain anonymous,” Hallie Freer, a Sotheby’s press officer, said over the phone.
From the moon to private hands
After Luna 16 returned to Earth with its lunar bounty, the Soviet Union gifted the samples to Nina Ivanovna Koroleva, the widow of the Soviet Union’s former space director, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev.
“He’s a key figure in space history — though he died much too early,” said Pearlman.
Korolev’s widely-recognized brilliance played a prominent role in igniting the Space Race, a rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
Korolev got there first.
In 1957, the Soviets rocketed Sputnik — the first human-made satellite — into space. Four years later, the Korolev-led Soviet space agency sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.
But NASA — buttressed by astronomical federal spending — famously put people on the moon in the summer of 1969.
“Neither we nor the Russians would have reached the moon without him [Korolev] taking the leadership role that he did,” said Pearlman.
But Korolev died in 1966. To honor his memory, the Soviet Union took three “soil particles” for the Luna 16 mission, placed them on a robust-looking plaque set behind glass, and gifted the artifact to his window.
But in 1993, these rare pieces of moon left her hands: She contracted Sotheby’s to auction off the samples.
The lunar specks fetched a price of $442,500. Now, Sotheby’s expects them to go for between $700,000 and $1 million.
In some ways, that’s expensive for such tiny moon fragments, totaling about 0.2 grams.
“It has a built-in magnifying glass,” noted Pearlman. “It’s closer to looking at grains of sand than looking at pebbles.”
Yet, to the right bidder, such historically rich extraterrestrial space objects might be priceless.
The fate of moon fragments
For 25 years, the whereabouts of the moon rocks haven’t been publicly known.
Presumably, a wealthy individual with ample discretionary income bought the Soviet-era plaque. And presumably, the same thing will happen again.
Although, the fragments may not be kept hidden this time.
“What you hope is that someone buys it and wants to display it,” said Pearlman, noting that billionaire Ross Perot previously bought a number of Russian artifacts and loaned them to the National Air and Space Museum.
“Private ownership is not necessarily a detriment — it can be an asset,” he added.
But for anyone interested in legally owning human-gathered moon rocks, the looming auction is the only way to do it.
NASA, for instance, has never gifted any space rocks to any individuals — even its famous astronauts.
Though, of course, these Soviet-era moon fragments may remain inside a dimly-lit private study somewhere, perhaps known to just a handful of people.
“We don’t know who bought it in ’93, or who’s selling it now,” said Pearlman.
With an Earthling populace that’s keen on space exploration, it’s likely that whomever is selling these bits of moon will receive a generous return on their lunar investment.