Meteor Madness Hits California
Treasure hunters search for precious fragments from last week’s crash landing
More than 150 years have passed since thousands of prospectors flooded California during the Gold Rush, hoping to strike gold and get rich overnight. Now treasure hunters have returned, searching hills and streams—not for gold but for meteorites.
Any small space rock that falls to Earth is called a meteor. These shooting stars often crash harmlessly to the ground, leaving behind fragments called meteorites. A meteor strike on April 22 has caused a sensation among scientists. Why all the excitement?
"It's the rarest of the rare," meteor hunter Robert Ward told the Los Angeles Times. "It's older than the sun. It holds the building blocks of life."
Scientists have estimated that the meteor could have been between 4 billion and 5 billion years old, dating from the beginning of our solar system. Furthermore, the meteorites that landed contain both water and carbon—two ingredients essential for life.
Researchers study space rocks like these to learn about the history of our solar system and how life could have begun here on Earth.
MORE PRECIOUS THAN GOLD
Made of carbonaceous chondrite, the space rock that fell to Earth in April is worth more than 20 times the price of gold, which currently sells for about $1,500 per ounce. Collectors are reportedly paying as much as $1,000 for just one gram (.036 oz.) of the meteor.
News of the meteor madness has sent people searching everywhere, from rivers and parks to backyards and rooftops. Some fragments have been sold, and others were donated to NASA for further study. But several people are keeping their finds as treasure.
When the meteor exploded into many pieces upon hitting Earth's atmosphere, it scattered meteorites across California and parts of Nevada. The first fragments were discovered near Sutter's Mill—the same place where James W. Marshall found the chunk of gold that started the California Gold Rush of 1848.
"The Sutter's Mill Meteorite could be the most profound sample collected in over 40 years," says Greg Schmidt of the NASA Lunar Science Institute. "It's like asking, ‘How did life on Earth begin?' and then having a fossil fall right in your backyard."