The moon. This round, grey celestial body inspires some kind of emotion in all who gaze upon its splendor. Whether its awe from our space neighbor looking extra gigantic during a blood moon or confusion when this nightly visitor shines bright in the vast blue sky of the daytime, any way you look at it, the moon is a pretty cool thing.
So when a rock from our only natural satellite finds its way to Earth, people tend to go a little wild. After all, we haven’t been to the surface since 1972 — there’s a lot to learn about the moon’s face. Still, few chunks have ever told us as much about our universe as one moon rock that waited over 1,000 years to be cracked open.
One of the largest ever moonrocks, or lunar meteorites if you want to be fancy, to ever smash into the Earth is Northwest Africa 5000 (NWA 5000). But don’t be fooled by the boring name — this meteor, as scientists found, has a lot to offer.
NWA 5000 is 25 pounds. Imagine that hurtling out of the sky! In July 2007, the rock was discovered in southern Morocco and was described as possessing a “large cuboidal” shape. Sounds gorgeous.
The object’s bigger than anything from NASA’s own personal rock collection, probably having come from a part of the part of the moon astronauts haven’t yet explored. Houston, is that jealousy we’re sensing? Well, wait until you see the price tag.
Now, this slice of the big meteorite is up for sale in the RR Auction’s Space Exploration sale, where it’s projected to go for at least $250,000. Yes this moonrock is amazing, but why is it fetching such a high price?
After the stone was discovered by the Moroccan group in the Western Sahara Desert, Adam Hupé, left, a computer engineer and meteorite collector, was the first person to examine the find.
Scott Eklund/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
See, Adam knew many mineral and fossil traders in the area. They would give him a call whenever they found something particularly special. He’d bought a few items from them in the past.
Museum of Natural History
And NWA 5000 was something special. So special that Adam refused to share how much he spent to acquire the meteorite. The most he would offer is, “You could buy a house.” We’re guessing a very nice one! He understood this meteor better than others.
One of the most special features of NWA 5000, and the main reason it was going for such an immense price tag, was its wholeness. Many times meteorites disintegrate when they enter Earth’s orbit.
Not NWA 5000. It remained intact during its crash-landing. Others searched for more than a decade to find any chunks that may have snapped cleanly from the stone, but none have been discovered.
Plus, this big rock was old! It laid in the Saharan sand for 1000 years, which allowed it to adjust to the Earth’s landscape. This gave the rock added protection against the elements and made it more resilient.
Adam eventually made the decision to slice the enormous lunar rock into smaller samples. A big reason for this was definitely so he could recoup what must have been an enormous investment. But he had other reasons.
He also wanted to send pieces to researchers, so he could learn more about NWA 5000. Now, a much wider audience could see this one-of-a-kind geologic spectacle. What researchers learned from the meteor was invaluable.
When the rock was cut, scientists were able to get a much better view of the inside of the stone. NWA 5000 may have been sitting in the desert for 1000 years, but, inside, it was holding something much more exciting.
Steve Jurvetson / Flickr
The metal within was 4.5 billion years old. It’s also filled with iridium and is the highest naturally occurring iridium-rich metal ever studied by scientists. This discovery led scientists to another interesting find.
NWA 5000 is likely a smaller piece of a much larger meteor that at some point embedded itself into the moon. The meteorite eventually broke off and traveling to Earth by itself. Kind of sad, but really cool.
Besides being scientifically relevant, this material is incredibly beautiful to look at, which brings a higher value to full slices versus endcuts. Makes sense. Middle bread is better than end bread.
Now, there are seven complete slices of NWA 5000 in existence. The slice sold at auction was “The Perigee,” which was about the size of a salad plate. At $250,000, it would be a pricey salad plate.
It weighs about a pound-and-a-half and is only one third of an inch thick. This slice is the largest in the collection and is currently in Adam’s possession. He won’t get to keep it for too much longer though.
“I tried not to get too attached to it,” says Adam. Don’t worry, Adam, another rich person will be enjoying your precious moonstone in no time. Still, he wouldn’t be completely deprived of his meteor.
Paul Harris / Meteorite Times Magazine
An “endcut” is in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. This is the largest intact section of the stone. Before Adam had the rock cut, he paid an artist to sculpt an exact model of the meteorite. The keepsake was important: he’d seen meteor fragments change the way we thought about space before.
Two years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin so famously took a giant leap for mankind, NASA concluded two lunar landings weren’t enough. Organization executives wanted a third, so they cooked up the Apollo 14 mission.
The mission saw Commander Alan Shepard, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell suit up for what would be a nine-day jaunt to the moon.
Space.com via NASA
NASA scheduled the launch for October 1970, but, after the failure of the Apollo 13 mission, delayed it four months. So, it was January 31, 1971, when these three finally took off from the Kennedy Space Center.
The astronauts hoped, of course, that their scientific agenda up in space would change the way humanity thought about physics. About life. They didn’t know, however, that they’d make a discovery destined to shake the scientific community years later.
America Space via NASA
On February 5, the crew landed on the moon. Shepard and Mitchell took giant leaps of their own, while Roosa stayed in lunar orbit. Over the next 33 hours, the guys worked.
ECN via NASA
While in the orbiting shuttle, Roosa took photos of the Earth and moon, including the spot the future Apollo 16 was scheduled to land. He also germinated 500 tree seeds, which, fun fact, eventually became known as Moon Trees.
Meanwhile, on the moon’s surface, Shepard whacked a few golf balls with a club he built with some spare junk. Cool as that sounds, the real game-changing mission involved rocks.
Shepard and Mitchell collected almost 100 pounds of moon rocks. Scientists were no doubt licking their lips thinking of all the rare moon minerals and lunar geological practices these puppies would help them understand.
Nine days after takeoff, on February 9, the Apollo 14 crew landed safely in the Pacific Ocean. Back on Earth, they delivered their findings to NASA, where scientists eagerly went to work.
Unbeknownst to the Apollo 14 crew, however, was that amidst those hundreds of rocks was one that would have scientists completely baffled. A rock that had no business being on the moon.
This was learned decades later, after NASA loaned the rock to Curtin University in Australia. There, in 2018, Professor Alexander Nemchin made an eyebrow-raising observation about the rock (below).
The 1.8-gram sample contained granite, a mineral common on Earth but incredibly rare on the moon. “The sample also contains quartz (below),” Professor Nemchin added, “which is an even more unusual find on the moon.”
Blake Schwartz / flickr
Additionally, the rock contained zircon, and the chemistry was “very different from that of every other zircon grain ever analyzed in lunar samples,” he continued, “and remarkably similar to that of zircons found on Earth.”
In other words, somehow, among all the rocks collected by Shepard and Mitchell, was a rock formed on Earth! Professor Nemchin and his team were stumped: how could a stone make the journey without hitching a ride?
Professor Nemchin and his team put their heads together and composed a theory. The story behind the rock’s journey, as they saw it, started 4 billion years before the Apollo 14 crew stepped aboard their spacecraft.
See, back then, when the Earth was in its infancy, space proved a wild place. Asteroids were constantly slamming into the baby-faced planet, forming the landmasses we call home (because Bruce Willis wasn’t around to destroy them).
Some of those pre-Willis meteors hit with so much impact that they launched pieces of the earth’s surface a few dozen million miles, all the way up to the surface of the moon.
While this sounds insane, the moon during that time period was about three times closer to Earth than it is now. This explained why the rock collected by the Apollo crew was so clearly formed under terrestrial conditions.
An alternative theory is that conditions on the moon billions of years ago were, like, the total opposite of what they are now, and that allowed the rock to form as is. Nemchin and his crew found the asteroid catapult a more reasonable theory.
Either way, as team member Dr. David Kring, of the Universities Space Research Association, said, “it is an extraordinary find that helps paint a better picture of early Earth and the bombardment that modified our planet.”
Coincidentally, a few years before the Apollo 14 crew launched, Astronaut Gordon Cooper — who had a similar role to that of 14’s Stuart Roosa — first made a discovery from space that changed the way we saw history.
It was 1959 when NASA invited Cooper to Washington, D.C. as a potential candidate for the Mercury Project. The project sought to put a man into Earth’s orbit and then return him safely, and Cooper was an ideal candidate.
After placing him on a shortlist of 109 potential candidates, NASA selected Cooper as one of seven men for the program. In May 1963, he conducted his first mission aboard the Faith 7, a craft so small it could only fit someone under five feet and 11 inches tall.
The instructions NASA gave the enthusiastic Oklahoman were simple: go into space solo, survive, and study zero gravity’s prolonged effects on the human body. At least, this was the mission as far as the public was concerned…
NASA via Space Flight Insider
The project started out a rousing success. From May 15 to 16, for just about 34 hours, Cooper orbited Earth, becoming the first astronaut to sleep in space. But then, in the midst of this enormous accomplishment, disaster nearly struck…
As Faith 7 returned to Earth, the automatic piloting system malfunctioned. Experienced flier that he was, Cooper didn’t panic. Instead, he grabbed the controls and maneuvered the spacecraft into a perfect landing on a waiting aircraft carrier. His mission was complete… or was it?
NASA via Discovery
Though the public didn’t know it at the time, Cooper’s mission also involved taking pictures. “Man, all I do is take pictures, pictures, pictures,” he said in a message to ground control. “I’m up to 5,245 now.” But he wasn’t just looking for eye-catching images…
L. Gordon Cooper / NASA
Cooper’s camera was actually equipped to detect magnetic aberrations along the Earth’s surface. This allowed him to secretly look for Soviet nuclear bases or submarines off the coast of the United States…
RR Auction via Collect Space
In the process of searching for secret nuclear bases, Cooper also detected hundreds of anomalies near the Caribbean, which he carefully charted in his small Faith 7 spacecraft. These aberrations, he noticed, weren’t big enough to be nuclear sites. So, what were they?
Discovery Channel via Mother Nature Network
Cooper wasn’t sure what he’d spotted from space, but he had a few ideas. For an unknown reason, he never told NASA or the Department of Defense about these strange anomalies. He decided to embark on his own personal mission…
NASA via Discovery
Once safely back on Earth, Cooper started investigating his findings. The anomalies he saw all seemed bunched around old trading routes that had been highly trafficked by Spanish ships. Surely this was more than a coincidence…
Cooper quickly made the connection from the shipping routes to possible shipwrecks, and he researched everything he could regarding centuries-old shipwrecks. Eventually, he felt confident that he had, in fact, charted some of them from space! What did this all mean?
The world would have to wait to find out. He had a long and successful career, including a mission on the Gemini 5, during which he spent 190 hours in space. Still, Cooper never had the time to truly explore his findings. As he grew older, time started running out…
NASA via Honey Suckle Creek
Afflicted with Parkinson’s and nearing the end of his days, Cooper didn’t want his secret discovery to be for naught, so he phoned his friend, Darrell Miklos (right). An explorer who had experience hunting for rocket ship debris, Miklos could investigate on Cooper’s behalf.
Cooper passed away in 2004, but by then his map was safely in his friend’s possession. At long last, it was time for Miklos to investigate what Gordon Cooper had seen from space all of those decades ago. Was there any truth to it?
“I believed Gordon 100 percent,” Miklos told Parade magazine. “I didn’t need proof.” Neither did the Discovery Channel, which, along with Miklos, created Cooper’s Treasure, a 2017 TV show that documented the investigation.
Discovery UK / YouTube
So, what did they find? On one journey, Miklos and his crew traveled to a spot on Cooper’s map looking for evidence of a shipwreck. With the help of deep-sea diving gear, they surveyed the ocean’s floor, hoping for a sign…
Discovery UK / YouTube
Sure enough, the crew uncovered a massive anchor! They hauled it to their deck, and soon after they realized that it was from the era of Christopher Columbus. This made it an extremely valuable artifact from the past!
Discovery UK / YouTube
By mid-2017, Miklos and his crew had searched five spots on Cooper’s map, and at all five, they found evidence of a shipwreck. With hundreds of points still left to explore, what other treasures might be waiting for Miklos to uncover?
Miklos planned to visit the rest of the locations, but it would take time. Still, as he told Newsweek, “I hear Gordon all the time in the back of my head: ‘You’re on the right trail!'” And it sure looked that way.
Discovery Channel via ABC News
Regardless of whether Miklos would be able to spend the next few decades searching for his friend’s discoveries remains to be seen. Still, you know that Gordon Cooper—the Oklahoma boy who reached the stars—would be happy to see his secret finally paid off!
NASA via Collect Space