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American Association for the Advancement of Science

New space rock is rare type of meteorite

CM-type carbonaceous chondrite meteorites like the Sutter's Mill meteorite are among the most unaltered materials that we currently possess from the early solar system. It is from this group of meteorites that researchers have recovered some of the most exciting materials known to space science, such as presolar grains, tiny mineral grains that are older than our sun, and organic carbon molecules, materials that may be the precursors to life on Earth. These meteorites are time capsules from the time of the formation of our Sun and planets. This sample, which shows the surprisingly complex interior of this new meteorite, measures about 1.6 centimeters across.
[Image courtesy of Robert Beauford, University of Arkansas]

On April 22, 2012, several radar instruments typically used for tracking weather -- detected a fast-moving fireball in the skies over California and Nevada. Many people also saw it with their own eyes.

Scientists leapt into action and quickly began searching for pieces of the meteorite.

They used the radar data along with photographic and video images and eyewitness reports to quickly track down the fragments in parks, parking lots and other spots. Several were found in just two days, before heavy rain hit the area, so they were unusually "fresh" and not weathered like many rocks on Earth are.

The meteorite is called the Sutter's Mill meteorite, after the spot where some of the fragments turned up.

In the 21 December issue of the journal Science, Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center and colleagues describe how they located the pieces and what they learned about the meteorite.

The rocks survived a record-breaking, high-speed entry of 28.6 kilometers per second, the researchers report. The meteorite belongs to a rare and primitive class of meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites, which contain some of the oldest material in the solar system. For scientists, these meteorites are like time capsules from the time of the formation of our Sun and planets.