Hundreds of moon rocks, meteorite samples and other extra-terrestrial flotsam has been lost, destroyed or stolen, an internal Nasa investigation has revealed.
The job of tracking down the artefacts, some of which were variously loaned out for education and research purposes and for public display and presented to dignitaries, will in part go to a man known as the "Moon Rock Hunter".
Joseph P Gutheinz Jnr was once an undercover Nasa agent who intercepted unauthorised attempts to sell samples on the black market – thus earning him the apt sobriquet.
In 1998 he conducted a sting where he posed as a buyer interested in buying a £3.2m lunar rock from a Miami dealer.
Other samples were simply swiped from museums and private collections, or otherwise misplaced, the report concluded.
Nasa’s inspector general Paul K Martin announced 517 moon rocks and other samples registered between 1970 and 2010 remained unaccounted for, the Independent reported.
Some – including six meteorite samples sent to the Carnegie Institution in 2004, were simply lost in the post, claims the New York Times.
Nasa officials say they are strengthening inventory processes.
A spokesman said: “Although such losses at any time are regrettable… the benefits to science of making these samples available for study have vastly outweighed the tiny risk of loss.”