A retired N.A.S.A. Office Inspector who was instrumental in retrieving a stolen moon rock in Honduras has urged the Maltese authorities to implement a 48-hour amnesty period to help retrieve a similar precious rock seized from an Mdina museum last Tuesday.

It appears that the thieves got more than they bargained for after it was learnt that the moon rock taken from the Natural History Museum could be worth up to $5 million.

Joseph Gutheinz, an award-winning NASA inspector, told The Sunday Times from the US yesterday that he believes the Malta incident is only the second case involving a moon rock.

In 1998, Mr Gutheinz and other federal officers staged an elaborate sting designed to smoke out dealers in black market lunar rocks.

Mr Gutheinz and his team ran a newspaper advert offering to buy moon rocks and a dealer in Miami responded by offering to the sell the lunar specimen for $5 million.

After two months of negotiations, Mr Gutheinz was finally escorted to a bank vault lock box and shown the moon rock plaque. He and a Customs agent seized the item on the spot.

The moon rock, acquired during the Apollo 17 mission, was one of about 100 President Richard Nixon gave to those countries deemed friends of the US.

Mr Gutheinz explained that Apollo 17 had brought back some 380 kg of "unique rock" from the moon in 1972, which explained the high value.

There are only three ways a moon rock may come to earth. Apart from NASA's manned missions, the Russians had unmanned probes which returned moon rocks and, thirdly, there have been some incidents where meteorites striking the moon have caused moon fragments to plummet to earth.

Moon rock value is considered high, contrary to the more common burnt meteorite rock.

It was no surprise then than most countries had put the moon pieces of rock under tight security, Mr Gutheinz said.

"Maybe Malta didn't appreciate or wasn't aware of the value. But may this be a lesson for all countries."

Mr Gutheinz believes professionals were not involved in the theft, since the small Maltese flag, which was carried on board the Apollo and displayed together with the moon rock, was left untouched.

There is little the burglars can do with the rock.

"They can try to sell it to private collectors or, if they're sufficiently dumb, at an auction house," he said.

He urged the authorities to grant a 48-hour amnesty for the return of the rock, failing which the act would be deemed a serious crime. This would encourage the burglars to return the rock to its rightful place.

"When the Columbia shuttle came down, people started picking up the debris and taking it home as some kind of collectors' item. The government gave a similar amnesty and most of the parts were in fact handed over," he said.

Last October, a former NASA student was sentenced to eight years and four months in a federal prison following the July 2002 heist of a safe full of moon rocks from Johnson Space Center.

The Maltese authorities have so far been reluctant to attach a value to the moon rock, with the curator of the Mdina museum saying that one could not put a price to an item of such symbolic and historical importance.

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