Three rock fragments from the moon retrieved by an unmanned Soviet space mission in 1970 were sold for $855,000 at a New York auction on Thursday. They are the only documented lunar rocks in private hands, Sotheby's auction house said. The buyer was a private American collector, but the name has not been disclosed.
The auction house said ahead of the sale that the fragments, ranging in size from about .079 inch x .079 inch (2 x 2mm) to .039 inch x .039 inch (1 x 1mm), could fetch up to $1 million.
The rocks originally had been given to Nina Ivanovna Koroleva, the widow of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the former director of the Soviet Union's space program, by the Soviet government in recognition of her husband's work.
“The particles were retrieved in September 1970 by the unmanned Luna-16, which drilled a hole in the surface to a depth of 13.8 inches (35 cm) and extracted a core sample,” the auction house said in a statement.
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“The auction included all sorts of objects and items pertaining to outer space - took place a month before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission to send men around the Moon for the first time, and Sotheby's took advantage of the anniversary to offer about 300 collectors' items related to assorted space missions,” Efe news reported.
"Space exploration is something that's universal. Anybody can look up at the sky and get excited about it. So, we have a lot of interest from around the world," Sotheby's expert Cassandra Hatton told AFP.
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Last year, Sotheby's sold a bag used by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong in the first manned mission to the moon in 1969 to collect moon dust for $1.8 million. Nancy Carlson, bought the bag, which had been misidentified, at an online government auction for $995. After she sent it to NASA for identification, the space agency confirmed that it had been used by Armstrong and still contained moon dust.
Most other known samples taken from the moon remain with the two entities that collected them: The United States during the Apollo 11-17 missions and the Soviet Union via the unmanned Luna-16, Luna-20, and Luna-24 missions.