Scientists are “over the moon” over an unexpected deposit in a horse pasture in California.
They have been scouring the field for more pieces of the important discovery, but they have had precious little to do with the local equines who normally graze there.
The excitement stems from the arrival of meteorite fragments which rained down in the pasture at Sutter’s Mill in California.
It was the same region where the first nugget of gold was found that sparked the Gold Rush in 1848.
When the Gold Rush began, people headed to California seeking their fortune.
Now, with this meteorite hunt, people once again have flocked to the area to search for scientific treasures. And a humble horse pasture is ground zero.
What scientists call the Sutter’s Mill Meteorite landed at 7.51am on Sunday, April 22, outside of Lotus, California, in a horse pasture located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains owned by the de Haas family.
“It sounded like a sonic boom but longer,” said Alan Ehrgott, who lives in the Sutter Mill area. “It seemed to last 45 seconds. It stopped me in my tracks.”
The de Haas family has donated the meteorite to space agency Nasa.
Merv de Hass, who owns the land where the meteorite was found, donated the fragment to NASA. “If I could contribute to science in some small way, then that would be great,” said de Haas.
“I’m looking forward to the results.”
“The de Haas family has welcomed Nasa’s involvement with open arms,” said Nasa Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) director Yvonne Pendleton. “I want to express my personal gratitude to them. They should be commended for their contribution to scientific discovery.”
Scientists say it is a rare type of meteor and they have few samples of this kind of material.
Meteorites are interesting to scientists from an astrobiology perspective, as they contain molecules related to how the building blocks for life on Earth may have been delivered from outer space.
Scientist believe that this meteor could hold the answers to the origin of life on Earth and the universe. By studying the meteor, scientists also will learn more about the early solar system and the formation of our planets.
“This is among the most chemically primitive meteorites,” NLSI deputy director Greg Schmidt said.
“It’s like asking ‘how did life on Earth begin?’ and then having a fossil fall right in your back yard. This is exciting stuff — who knows what’s inside? The Sutter’s Mill Meteorite could be the most profound sample collected in over 40 years.”
People who work at Nasa had an opportunity to participate in the meteor hunt.
Peter Jenniskens, a meteor astronomer with the SETI Institute working in collaboration with NLSI, led the search.
For Jenniskens, finding the meteorite is equivalent to winning the lottery.
Because the discovery is a rare carbonaceous chrondrite that decomposes quickly in damp weather, the science team hopes to cover a large amount of terrain to identify possible candidate pieces for recovery before they decompose.
As Jenniskens finds the meteorites, he notes their exact location to better understand the meteor’s fall to Earth.
“I am grateful this meteorite was found quickly,” Jenniskens said. “We need to recover as much material as possible from the damp environment before weather affects the rocks too badly.”
Since there was such a large piece of land to search in a short amount of time, Airship Ventures’ zeppelin airship was called in to help conduct the search.
The airship provides an ideal search vehicle, due to its ability to fly slowly and methodically over an area with a group of trained observers aboard to relay possible candidate coordinates to a ground team for investigation.
The airship also carries a high definition gyrostabilized camera, often used to help photograph sporting events. In addition to the camera mounted on the airship, observers in the ship used binoculars and cameras to help spot burn patches and potential impact sites.
“I suspect this is the first time in history that anyone has searched for meteorites with an airship,” Schmidt said.
So far, the fragment donated by the de Haas family was one of the largest meteorites recovered, but the search for even bigger samples will continue over the next few months.
Scientists will be studying these meteorite samples for many years to come.