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Sutter’s Mill also site of modern-day meteorite rush

Mon., Feb. 4, 2013, midnight

As a geologist I hope you remember the story of Sutter’s Mill. It was the place in California where gold was discovered in 1848. As news of the discovery spread, people flocked to the American River near the mill. Thus was born the 49ers gold rush that changed U.S. history by developing the West.

Because of its historical significance, the Sutter’s Mill site now is a park, but it’s a bit unusual that people to this day can collect any rocks or minerals they find there.

Not so long ago Sutter’s Mill again became quite a special locality. Last year a meteorite slammed into the atmosphere, broke up and fell to the grounds of the park. I don’t know the odds of a meteorite hitting a particular patch of ground, but the odds that one would land at an already geologically significant site must be long indeed.

People started to look for hunks of meteorite at the park.

“There were professional and semiprofessional meteorite hunters out here, as well as just Mom and Pop with the kids,” Norm Allen, a volunteer docent at the park, told National Public Radio. “In fact, one lady was pushing a baby carriage and found one of the bigger pieces that was found, right off the bat.”

Peter Jenniskens is from the SETI Institute – Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Jenniskens used weather radar data to help trace the flight path of the meteorite. He estimated the mass weighed something like 100,000 pounds to start with and was moving fast – some 18 miles a second.

“Because it came in so fast, very little survived,” Jenniskens told NPR.

The majority of meteorites that fall to Earth are made up of material that’s broadly similar to Earth rocks. But, once again, the Sutter’s Mill site pulled off long odds. The meteorite that showered down on it was made up of an unusual type of material rich in organics.

“Most meteorite falls we’re getting on the Earth are from the terrestrial kind of stuff,” Jenniskens said. “This is more interesting. This is the type of meteorite that carries organics with it to the Earth, that must have brought in the carbon that you and I are made out of.”

The fancy name for the unusual meteorite is carbonaceous chondrite. About 2 pounds of the material was collected by people at the park.

Anybody lucky enough to pick up chunks of organic-rich meteorite at a place that launched a gold rush should definitely go out and buy several lottery tickets. No, I take that back. Such a person would only need one ticket to win big.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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