Over 150 years ago, thousands of people flocked to California to try make their fortune panning for gold. Now, the hunt is on again. However, this time around it's not for sparkly flecks of the precious metal, but fragments of a meteor that made a fiery entry to earth on April 22nd, 2012.
The space rock, which was about the size of a minivan, pierced through the Earth's atmosphere and exploded into a spectacular fireball over Central California and parts of Nevada in broad daylight, at 8.00 am PST. People fortunate enough to witness this momentous event reported seeing a streaking light accompanied by a sonic boom, that was heard all the way from Lake Tahoe to Nevada County.
In what feels like a weird coincidence, fragments of the meteor which broke up as it hit the Earth's atmosphere are scattered around Sutter's Mill, the same area where the first nugget that triggered the Gold Rush of 1848 was discovered. Not surprisingly, the space rock has been named the Sutter's Mill Meteorite.
Given that space rock debris can sell for more than 20 times the price of a similar sized nugget of gold, it is not surprising that thousands of prospectors have flocked to the area. While some are in it for the money, others like the Sacramento-based DeHaas family are in it to help science and have donated the largest piece found so far, to the team of 30 SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and NASA scientists, who are also feverishly searching for fragments of the space rock.
An analysis of the few tiny pieces that the scientists have been able to garner has revealed that the asteroid is composed of one of the oldest known materials in the Universe - Carbonaceous Chondrite.
Excited about the information these rocks could provide them, the scientists have begun an aerial search aboard a giant floating airship (zeppelin), which with its slow moving pace and large windows, makes a better spotting vehicle than a conventional aircraft. They believe that the larger pieces probably hit the earth hard enough to make an impact on the ground, making it fairly easy to spot from the skies with super sophisticated cameras. While no big pieces have been discovered yet, they are hoping that they will be able to locate some soon. That's because unlike gold nuggets, these rocks do not last forever, decomposing rapidly in damp conditions.
The last time a Carbonaceous Chondrite meteorite crashed to Earth was in Australia in 1969 - Known as the Murchison meteorite, it is today the world's most studied rock and has provided scientists with invaluable information about the formation of our Universe. Hopefully, the Sutter's Mill meteorite will help them get to the next level.
Resources: newscientist.com,huffingtonpost.com, news.discovery.com