The seeds of discord were sown Monday when NASA released thousands of new images of the lunar surface to the public.
On Tuesday, Canadian planetary scientist Phil Stooke posted an annotated version of one image to a message board, announcing what he thought to be an interesting new find: the final resting place of the Lunokhod 2, a long-dormant Soviet-era lunar rover famed among space scientists for its earlier record-setting travels. Stooke's post was quickly picked up and trumpeted by various media outlets around the world.
But he and other astronomers soon received a corrective e-mail from planetary geologists Sasha Basilevsky and Sergei Gerasimenko, who pointed out that the rover was actually several hundred meters to the northeast of where Stooke said it was.
Then today, government-owned Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported that the creators of the Soviet moon exploration program "have always known where the rover had found its last asylum," according to Russia InfoCentre.
"It's not surprising that they would say that," Stooke laughed when interviewed by AOL News. "The thing is, the Soviet scientists who worked on this previously knew basically where it was, but not exactly. They knew within a few kilometers."
Stooke said that it is generally difficult for a rover's human operators to say precisely where it is at any given time because its sensors capture detail of the surrounding landscape that are far too fine to be corroborated with pre-existing planetary terrain maps. The new NASA photos clearly show Lunokhod's tracks, however, allowing scientists to create a new map pinpointing the exact path it took across the moon, which Stooke plans to do shortly.
A large part of his and other scientists' interest stems from the fact that the rover holds the record for the "furthest distance traveled by a robot across an alien landscape" -- a 23-mile trek from start to finish, according to Discovery News.
Lunokhod 2 is a remote-controlled, solar-powered, Cold War-era lunar rover launched in January 1973, near the tail-end of the "Space Race." Its mission: to take photographs of the lunar surface and perform soil and light experiments. The word "Lunokhod" is Russian for "moon walker."
It operated continuously for four months until the operators back on Earth drove it into a crater and "accidentally covered its heat radiator with soil as it struggled to get out again," according to Stooke. It is believed that during the lunar day, the collected dust trapped heat from the sunlight and fried the rover.
Still, the rover remained valuable to scientists all the way up until 2005, its working reflector used to conduct lunar laser ranging experiments.
Yet since 1998, it has been the legal property of one particularly compelling man: Richard Garriot, aka "Lord British," a video game developer who earned a fortune in the early '90s after creating the massively popular fantasy role-playing computer game "Ultima Online," a spiritual predecessor to "World of Warcraft."
In addition to computers, video games and magic, Garriott has long had an interest in spaceflight. His father was astronaut Owen K. Garriott, who spent 60 days aboard Skylab. Richard won Lunokhod 2 and its landing craft at a Sotheby's auction in New York for the bargain-bin price of $68,500.
In 2001, he boasted of the accomplishment to Computer Games Magazine, exclaiming: "I am now the world's only private owner of an object on a foreign celestial body. Though there are international treaties that say no government shall lay claim to geography off planet earth, I am not a government. Summarily, I claim the moon in the name of Lord British!"