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Are moon rocks priceless or worthless?

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A plaque containing a small Nicaraguan flag and four moon rock chips ended up in the office of a Las Vegas lawyer. (Las Vegas Review-Journal, Ronda Churchill/AP)

Four chips of what appear to be genuine moon rock have turned up in the estate of a deceased Las Vegas gambler. Their path there was a tortuous one, and included a Baptist missionary, a Costa Rican mercenary, a Nicaraguan dictator and former U.S. president Richard Nixon.

Flamboyant casino owner Bob Stupak died more than two years ago, but the attorney for his estate has only recently sent the tabletop display of purported moon rock to NASA for inspection.

The display features four chips of grey rock, each the size of a grain of rice, encased in a magnifying Lucite dome about the size of a toonie, along with a Nicaraguan flag. Combined, the chips weigh 0.05 grams.

The estate claims the chips were taken from the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Renee Juhans, NASA inspector general executive officer, said the space agency was "taking steps to authenticate" the moon rocks.

Joe Gutheinz, a retired NASA investigator and moon rock hunter, says the U.S. government distributed 270 samples of moon rock during the 1970s as gestures of good will. The rocks in question are said to have been given by Nixon to former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

When Somoza's compound was sacked in the late 70s during the Nicaraguan revolution, it ended up in the hands of a Costa Rican mercenary who fought with Nicaraguan soldiers before switching sides and fighting for the Contras.

Harry Coates, a Baptist minister and missionary from Arizona, acquired the moon rocks in a trade during a mission to Costa Rica. Coates died in 2005; his wife Silvina couldn't remember what the trade involved.

Finally, Coates sold the moon rocks to Stupak for $10,000 US and 200,000 shares in his casino.

NASA's Juhans wouldn't say what would be done with the rocks if they're found to be authentic, but Stupak's lawyer said they would likely be returned to the government of Nicaragua.

Gutheinz, the former investigator, who has spent decades trying to locate missing moon rock samples, says these particular rocks can be considered worthless or priceless, depending on your point of view.

"In a sense, they're worthless because you can't sell them," Gutheinz said by telephone this week from his law office in Friendswood, Texas. "But for people who love space, you can't put a price on it."

Moon rocks are much rarer than diamonds on Earth: about 382 kilograms of rocks have been collected by NASA's Apollo missions and unmanned Soviet probes.

Samples of the rock were sold legitimately only once, in 1993, when Sotheby's auctioned a 0.2 gram sample of rock from the first of three Soviet Union-era moon probes for $442,500 US, Gutheinz says.

As far as the black market in moon rocks goes, investigators think a missing Apollo 17 sample may have sold in the Middle East in 1998 for between $5 million and $10 million.

Do you think moon rocks are priceless or worthless?

With files from the Associated Press.

(This survey is not scientific. Results are based on readers' responses.)

Tags: money, POV, Science & Technology, space

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