A minivan-sized chunk of rock from outer space that landed in the Sierra Nevada is generating a lot of attention within the scientific community after a study published Friday in the prestigious academic journal Science.
What has become known as the Sutter’s Mill meteorite entered the earth’s atmosphere about 7:51 a.m. local time on April 22.
An accompanying sonic boom rattled homes and nerves throughout Central California and Nevada and generated unsubstantiated reports that it had landed and set fires near Big Hill in Tuolumne County.
The rock exploded about five miles above Turlock Lake near La Grange and landed in pieces near the famed gold discovery site in Coloma.
It turns out the meteorite contained material which scientists were able to rapidly collect, preserve and study for the past several months.
Part of the fascination is derived from the fact that the meteorite contained very old and rare material, according to Columbia College earth science professor Jeff Tolhurst.
“It originated about the same time as the solar system formed, about 4.5 billion years ago,” Tolhurst said. “If someone finds one and it’s not contaminated, they can find out about the solar system at the time it was forming.”
Indeed, avoiding “contamination” is a matter of timeliness and being extremely delicate. The carbonaceous chondrite, or “stony” meteorite, represents only about 5 percent of the natural objects from outer space that survive an impact with the earth’s surface.
Moisture from a person’s breath can be enough to cause the compounds contained within to break down, Tolhurst said. As a result, scientists quickly rushed to the site and carefully collected samples without touching the fragments with even gloved hands.
Another boost to researchers was Ithe ability to track the meteorite using Doppler radar once it entered the earth’s atmosphere. Modern technology was crucial “to figure out the size of the thing,” Tolhurst said.
“It was going a lot faster than a typical meteorite,” he said. “That might have been why it made such a loud detonation.”
According to an article published last week in the Scientific American, the meteorite was historically fast. It entered the atmosphere at 64,000 mph, a new record for a recovered meteorite.
The meteorite became just the third meteorite fall confirmed to be witnessed in California and the first of two this year. The other came in mid-October. The second-ever sighted fall occurred in August 2007 and landed near Red Canyon Lake in Tuolumne County.
Tolhurst said two of his students recovered fragments of that younger meteorite shortly after it came to rest while on a hike in the Emigrant Wilderness.
When the Sutter’s Mill meteorite broke the sound barrier, Tolhurst said he was as startled as most people.
“I thought somebody had accidentally pulled into my driveway and backed into the side wall,” he said. “My dogs were looking at me, I was looking at them, all of us thinking, ‘What’s going on?’”
Included in the recently published material are some GPS coordinates where pieces of the meteorite can be expected to be found. Tolhurst said he may go scope out those sites with some of his students.
“It sure would be cool to find one,” he said.
And potentially lucrative. According to a University of California, Berkeley, report released in May, collectors have been offering as much as $2,000 per gram for verifiable chunks of the once-in-a-lifetime find.