NEW YORK — NASA has lost or misplaced more than 500 of the Moon rocks its Apollo astronauts collected and brought back to Earth, according to a new report from the U.S. space agency’s internal watchdog.

In an audit released Dec. 8, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General states that the agency “lacks sufficient controls over its loans of moon rocks and other astromaterials, which increases the risk that these unique resources may be lost.”

The report stresses the importance of maintaining stricter guidelines for the release of lunar materials to researchers, and more meticulous inventory procedures for their storage and return.

“NASA has been experiencing loss of astromaterials since lunar samples were first returned by Apollo missions,” NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin detailed in the report. “In addition to the Mount Cuba disk [a sample disk lost after it was loaned to Delaware’s Mount Cuba Astronomical Observatory in 1978], NASA confirmed that 516 other loaned astromaterials have been lost or stolen between 1970 and June 2010, including 18 lunar samples reported lost by a researcher in 2010 and 218 lunar and meteorite samples stolen from a researcher at [NASA’s Johnson Space Center] in 2002, but since recovered.”

And while the agency reported the 517 missing Moon rock samples, even more of these precious materials may have gone astray, according to the report.

Martin’s office audited 59 researchers who had received samples from NASA, and found that 11 of them, or 19 percent, could not locate all of the borrowed materials.

The report also found that the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston had records of hundreds of samples that no longer exist, and loans to 12 researchers who had died, retired or relocated, sometimes without the office’s knowledge and without beforehand returning the samples.

“The Curation Office did not ensure that these loaned research samples were efficiently used and promptly returned to NASA,” Martin wrote. “For example, we learned of one researcher who still had lunar samples he had borrowed 35 years ago on which he had never conducted research.”

In response to the inspector general report, the agency is looking into modifying its loan agreements and procedures.

“NASA is committed to the protection of our nation’s space-related artifacts, and sharing these treasures with outside researchers and the general public,” NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said in a statement. “We agree with the recommendations contained in the recently released Inspector General report examining NASA’s controls over loans of moon rocks and other astromaterials to researchers and educators. Actions will mostly result in changes to loan agreements and inventory control procedures.”

The agency does not consider lunar rocks and other Moon samples to be at high risk, Brown added.

From 1969 to 1972, 12 astronauts landed on the Moon during the agency’s Apollo program. A total of 382 kilograms of lunar rock and soil came back with these astronauts over the course of six Moon landings.

NASA regularly loans Moon rocks, meteorites and samples of comet dust to museums, researchers, educators and institutions around the world. The Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office maintains 140,000 lunar samples, 18,000 meteorite samples, and about 5,000 solar wind, comet and cosmic dust samples, the report said.

“As of March 2011, over 26,000 of these samples were on loan for scientific study, educational pursuits and public outreach purposes,” Martin wrote.

Maintaining better control of these samples returned from space will likely require a much larger overhaul of the system currently in place.

NASA is committed to making changes to address the issues cited in the new report, Brown said.

“Over the history of the program, NASA has continually reviewed, assessed, and updated its procedures to mitigate incidents that result in loss of samples,” he said. “NASA will incorporate the [inspector general’s] recommendations within new procedures and processes already in work. NASA plans to complete the entire updating process within 9 months.”