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Customs agents seize 4-billion-year-old moon rock

Moon rock
Moon rock
Moon rock
A moon rock, thought to be 4 billion years old, was brought back by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972  
December 7, 1998
Web posted at: 5:50 p.m. EST (2250 GMT)

MIAMI (CNN) -- U.S. Customs announced Monday they seized a tiny piece of the moon, after a Florida man offered to sell it to undercover officers for $5 million.

The fingernail-sized moon rock, weighing barely more than a gram, was brought back to Earth by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972. It's estimated to be nearly 4 billion years old.

Agents say the man, who was not arrested, kept the rock in a safety deposit box in a Miami area bank. He said he bought it from a Honduran official, identified only as a retired military officer.

In 1973, President Richard Nixon gave the rock to the Honduran government as a gift, along with a plaque and a Honduran flag that had flown aboard the Apollo 17 mission. It was part of a larger rock, which was broken apart and shared with several countries.

Plaque with a Hondran flag
President Nixon gave the rock, along with a plaque, to the Honduran government as a gift in 1973  

NASA officials at Johnson Space Center in Houston verified that the rock is indeed from the moon, and that it was the one given to Honduras.

Although there is a vigorous black market in phony space memorabilia including fake moon rocks, it was the first time a genuine moon rock that was being offered for sale has been seized by U.S. authorities, Customs officials said.

"This was the first time we are aware that moon rock was being sold illicitly on the U.S. market," Ralphael Lopez, special agent in charge of the Miami Customs office, said at a Monday news conference.

Monday's announcement came on the 26th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the last of NASA's manned missions to the moon.

Customs agents, postal inspectors and NASA launched "Operation Lunar Eclipse" in September with an advertisement in USA Today seeking moon rocks, officials said.

RELATED VIDEO
CNN's Mark Potter report
Windows Media 28K 56K

A Florida man identified as Alan Rosen called to offer a moon rock for sale. He told undercover agents he had bought the rock from the retired Honduran military officer, officials said. Agents viewed the rock at a suburban Miami bank and seized it on November 18, officials said.

The United States has asked Honduras to verify Rosen's account and explain what happened to the rock, but has not received an answer, Lopez said.

The sale of moon rock is not illegal. Customs agents seized it because it wasn't declared when it was brought into the country, and they said they would return it to the Honduran government.

Eugene Cernan, the commander of the Apollo 17 mission, told the news conference by phone from Houston that someone named Rosen contacted him about a year ago, saying he had a genuine moon rock for sale.

"I found it very strange because there isn't anybody who's got a piece of the rock including any of us who went to the moon," Cernan said.

Correspondent Mark Potter and Reuters contributed to this report.
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