The bizarre drama behind a pinch of moon dust that just sold for $ 500,000

On the abyss of humanity’s first step on the moon, Neil Armstrong stood on the moon module’s ladder, describing the earth’s peculiar texture. “It’s almost like a powder,” he told the Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas.

Ten minutes later, he scooped up a pile of this lunar dust – the first sample ever collected from the surface of another world. Now, more than 50 years later, a pinch of that dust goes to a new owner: An anonymous buyer who paid just over $ 500,000 at auction to own a piece of history.

NASA has long argued that the moon’s rocks and dust collected during the Apollo missions are state property that may not be owned by private citizens. The space agency has made a major effort to recover any stray lunar materials, including a stabbing operation in 2011 that seized – from a 74-year-old woman in a Denny’s Restaurant – a moonstone the size of rice, embedded in a paperweight.

The moon dust sold today is a rare exception to the rule, a peculiarity that is partly due to a combination of fraud, erroneous identity and a series of legal disputes.

“It’s a unique situation,” said Adam Stackhouse, a specialist at Bonhams.

Researchers have expressed mixed feelings about the auction. NASA has analyzed these dust samples, and scientists have also studied the other fractions of the larger moon sample. But there is always the opportunity to learn more. “Moon samples are so, so precious,” says Sara Mazrouei, a planetary scientist and educational developer at Ryerson University in Ontario.

Space law experts, on the other hand, are excited about what this sale could mean for future trade in extraterrestrial materials, such as metals extracted from asteroids. “It’s another step in this march toward the commercialization of natural resources from outer space,” said Mark Sundahl, an expert in international space law at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Ohio.

Sticky dust

The moon dust in question came to Earth thanks to a peculiar property: It is sticky.

On the airless moon, the solar wind constantly blows the surface and gives an electrostatic charge to the fine-grained dust, also called regolith. This charge causes the moon’s regolith to stick to everything – astronauts’ boots, gloves, suits, cords, tools and more.

“Immediately, the astronauts noticed how sticky the regolith was,” said Nicolle Zellner, a planetary scientist at Albion College. The sticky dust is also rugged and abrasive, and it quickly proved problematic during the Apollo missions, which clogged equipment, worn suits, and soiled landers. Astronauts began knocking their boots on the ladder at the entrance to the lunar module to kick as much dust off as possible after venturing to the surface.

The stickiness of the dust meant that when Armstrong scooped the first sample into a Teflon bag, there were fine grains on the outside of the bag. For transport to Earth, the entire bag itself was stowed inside a bag with a zipper, stamped with the words “Lunar Sample Return” in blocked capital letters. The grains in the recent sale were pulled from the woven fabric inside this protective bag.

When you see the dust of the bag today, “you just feel like you’re close to that moment,” Stackhouse says. “It’s like a time machine in a way.”

Sticky fingers

The dusty road to the auction block was swirling. Decades ago, NASA lent the outer sample bag along with other artifacts to the Cosmosphere Space Museum in Hutchinson, Kansas. At an unknown time, the bag disappeared.

After the museum’s director, Max Ary, left in 2002, staff began investigating several missing items. They discovered that Ary had sold museum items next to his personal collection and cashed in the profits. He was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $ 132,000 for convictions for fraud, theft and money laundering.

A federal search of Ary’s property revealed additional artifacts. Among the many treasures was the lunar sample return bag, but due to a mix of catalog numbers, officials did not realize the significance of the bag at the time. The U.S. Marshals Service sold it at an online auction of Ary’s seized space collection to help pay for his fines.

Nancy Lee Carlson of Inverness, Illinois, won the white bag – and the dust embedded in its fibers – for just $ 995. She sent the bag to NASA’s Johnson Space Center to verify its authenticity and was shocked by their response: Not only was the bag authentic, but the dust inside matched the properties and composition of the first lunar sample returned by the Apollo 11 crew.

In a twist, NASA then refused to give the bag back, claiming it was a national treasure. “This artifact was never intended to be owned by anyone,” NASA spokesman William Jeffs said in a 2017 statement. It not only has scientific value, he said, but it “also represents the culmination of a massive national effort that involves a generation of Americans. “

To the agency’s annoyance, Carlson sued for its return, and she won. She then auctioned off the bag in 2017 for $ 1.8 million. NASA has not responded to further requests for comment on the latest auction.

Two years later, Carlson sued NASA again, this time for damaging the bag during the inspection and holding on to some dust from its interior. NASA scientists had used a piece of carbon tape to catch some of the embedded moon dust, which was mounted on small pieces of aluminum for analysis, and they had stored these samples. According to Carlson, the loss had prevented her from selling the bag at its originally estimated value.

The agency eventually settled with Carlson, returning five out of the six stumps with the dust. These are the samples that have just been sold at Bonhams.

The Moon Vault

In addition to the legal drama, lunar experts are divided about the scientific implications of today’s sales.

“The mandatory answer is that each sample is important and can tell you something new,” says Peter James, a planetary geophysicist at Baylor University in Texas. But the auctioned samples are only a small fraction of the 842 pounds of lunar material that astronauts shipped back to Earth during six Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972. Because this sample was already analyzed by NASA and resembles the much larger sample that still available for study, James does not see the sale as a major loss to scientists.

The counterpoint is that it is 50 years ago that someone brought back a fresh piece of the moon, and every bit that has been for analysis has provided more information about the moon’s history and geology. Analysis of the Apollo lunar rocks helped scientists put together the most probable theory of the moon’s origin: An object the size of Mars collided with the infant Earth and emitted a cloud of debris that eventually cooled and fused into our only natural satellite.

A study of the Apollo samples also showed that the moon has a surprising amount of water. Initial analysis in the late 1960s and early 1970s overlooked faint traces of water locked in the rocks. But orbiting spacecraft discovered hints of lunar water – a finding that was later confirmed by re-analysis of Apollo rocks using ultra-sensitive instruments. Such aqueous reserves are the key to humans returning to the moon and beyond, as they will potentially help future space travelers reduce the load they have to bring from Earth.

Scientists are still studying the Apollo rocks today. Some of the samples were placed in long-term storage “so that unborn scientists can use instruments that have not yet been developed to answer questions that have not yet been asked,” said NASA astrochemist Jamie Elsila Cook. national geography in 2019. Such a cache from 1972 was just opened in March in hopes of informing about the plans for the Artemis missions, NASA’s upcoming attempt to send humans back to the moon.

Mazrouei emphasizes the extensive work that scientists undertake to write proposals with the hope of getting just a little bit of moon dust for study. “So watching them get auctioned off … has been a bit daunting,” she says.

But she sees a glimmer of hope in what the sale could mean for the availability of lunar samples for educational purposes. “Perhaps this will open the door for future specimens to be available beyond this elite group of scientists,” she says.

Extraction of the sky

Space lawyers see the sale through a slightly different lens. As many countries prepare for future missions to the moon and beyond, extraction and use of space resources may soon become a reality. Such activities fall under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement that lays the foundation for modern space legislation.

Although the treaty provides some guidance for future activities, such as banning military maneuvers and preventing anyone from claiming ownership of other worlds, there are still many gaps. First, “they they did not imagine the exploitation of space resources,” says Christopher Johnson, space law consultant at the Secure World Foundation and adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC

Over the years, some countries, including the United States and the United Arab Emirates, have enacted laws that give citizens ownership of resources they extract from celestial bodies. The recent sale further cements the legality of owning, using and reselling space resources, he says.

Cleveland-Marshall’s Sundahl adds that any case that sets off conversations in the general public about the extraction and sale of the moon’s resources can be helpful; many debates about the balance between public and private interests lay ahead as we waded into the water of heavenly mining.

“We’re just at the beginning of this,” Sundahl says.

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