Sutter’s Mill Meteorite Triggered a Scientific Gold Rush
A meteorite that exploded as a fireball over California’s Sierra foothills this past spring was among the fastest, rarest meteorites known to have hit the Earth, and it traveled a highly eccentric orbital route to get here.
An international team of scientists presents these and other findings in a study published Friday, Dec. 21, in the journal Science. The 70-member team included nine researchers from UC Davis, along with scientists from the SETI Institute, NASA and other institutions.
The researchers found that the meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22 was the rarest type known to have hit the Earth — a carbonaceous chondrite. It is composed of cosmic dust and presolar materials that helped form the planets of the Solar System.
The scientists learned that the meteorite formed about 4.5 billion years ago. It was knocked off its parent body, which may have been an asteroid or a Jupiter-family comet, roughly 50,000 years ago. That began its journey to Sutter’s Mill, the gold discovery site that sparked the California Gold Rush.
As it flew toward Earth, it traveled an eccentric course through the Solar System, flying from an orbit close to Jupiter toward the sun, passing by Mercury and Venus, and then flying out to hit Earth.
The high-speed, minivan-sized meteorite entered the atmosphere at about 64,000 miles per hour. The study said it was the fastest, “most energetic” reported meteorite that’s fallen since 2008, when an asteroid fell over Sudan.
“If this were a much bigger object, it could have been a disaster,” said co-author and UC Davis geology professor Qing-zhu Yin. “This is a happy story in this case. “
Before entering Earth’s atmosphere, the meteorite is estimated to have weighed roughly 100,000 pounds. Most of that mass burned away when the meteorite exploded. Scientists and private collectors have recovered about 2 pounds remaining.
UC Davis is 60 miles west of the El Dorado county towns of Coloma and Lotus, where pieces of the meteorite were found on residents’ driveways and in local forests and parks.
When the meteorite fell, Yin, whose lab contains some of the country’s most specialized equipment to measure the age and composition of meteorites, searched for and collected pieces of the fallen meteorite with students and volunteers. He also led a 35-member subgroup of international researchers to study and share information about the meteorite’s mineralogy, internal textures, chemical and isotopic compositions and magnetic properties.
Meteorites like Sutter’s Mill are thought to have delivered oceans of water to the Earth early in its history. Using neutron-computed tomography, UC Davis researchers helped identify where hydrogen, and therefore water-rich fragments, resides in the meteorite without breaking it open.
For the first time, the Doppler weather radar network helped track the falling carbonaceous chondrite meteorite pieces, aiding scientists in the quick recovery of them, the study reports. Yin expects that the weather radar data in the public domain could greatly enhance and benefit future meteorite recoveries on land.
“For me, the fun of this scientific gold rush is really just beginning,” said Yin. “This first report based on the initial findings provides a platform to propel us into more detailed research. Scientists are still finding new and exciting things in Murchison, a similar type of meteorite to Sutter’s Mill, which fell in Victoria, Australia, in 1969, the same year Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin returned the first lunar samples to the Earth. We will learn a lot more with Sutter’s Mill.”