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Hunting meteor fragments, older than the Earth

The minivan-sized meteorite that broke up over the Sierra on Sunday, April 22 was not just any old space rock. It was one of the rarest types of meteorites to fall to Earth — a carbonaceous chondrite, the earliest solid material to form in our Solar System more than four and a half billion years ago, before the planets, including the Earth, formed.

Carbonaceous chondrite meteorite

If its age and identity are confirmed, this meteorite could turn out to be one of the most scientifically important to fall to Earth since the late 1960s, says UC Davis geology professor Qing-zhu Yin. Which explains why Yin’s out-of-office email currently reads, “Gone meteorite hunting.”

Yin’s lab at UC Davis is one of a few in the country with the equipment to analyze and accurately date the meteorite, which may contain carbon, water and even simple sugars — the basis of life. He hopes to collect as many fragments as possible for scientific analysis.

Carbonaceous meteorite

These primitive meteorites provide a glimpse into the first few tens of millions of years of the solar system’s history, Yin said. They contain grains that would predate our solar system, representing ejecta from nearby stars before our solar system was born over four and a half billion years ago.

Yin is asking locals and visitors to help his team track the meteorite, by recording the GPS coordinates of any fragments, and recover pieces. The main area of search is the Lotus valley, near Coloma.

“I have been in the field to reach out to the local community to help to recover as much materials as we can,” Yin said in an email. “They longer the material stays in the field, the more likely its scientific value being degraded.”

Yin said he’s also concerned that people might be using hand magnets on potential meteorite fragments. Magnets won’t help much with identifying the meteorites, he said, but could scramble the natural magnetic signals before they can be analyzed.
“I also want to express my sincere thanks to the local community for their outpouring support and generosity in this recovery effort and their genuine interests and their collaboration with UC Davis,” Yin said.

I have interviewed and talked to many people over the past weekend. I witnessed such an incredible display of warm, genuine hospitality to me and my students and postdocs. It amazes me that some locals took a group of complete strangers into your home with open arms and allowed them to search their property, while providing food, drink and company in the mean time…My students and I were moved beyond words by everything the Lotus community have done for us and find it difficult to adequately express our thanks to them. We are confident that the friendship and strong community support will help us to find a lot more of these materials in the near future.

I am confident that this back bone support from the local community will help realize the materials’ full scientific values eventually by the world scientific community at large, and UC Davis in particular (as the fireball and meteorite fall practically occurred in our backyard).

How to spot a meteorite: 

  • Black-greyish look, with a molten glassy fusion crust with goose bumps, and often with cracks
  • If pieces have broken off, the interior should show some specks of minerals — those are the first solid condensates of our solar system
  • They should be distinct from local rocks and surrounding environment.

Reach Professor Yin at: qyin@ucdavis.edu.

 

 

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