A meteorite that exploded in the skies last year above where gold was discovered along the American River is providing UC Davis geologists a rare window into the earliest days of the solar system.
University of California, Davis, is one of five institutions that have part of the main mass of the Sutter's Mill meteorite, as it is known, university officials announced Thursday.
UC Davis researchers received their pieces Wednesday. Though they total about 10 grams or about 5 percent of the palm-size main mass researchers say it could provide a clearer picture of how the planets were formed.
"This was kept in pristine condition for 4 1/2 billion years," said UC Davis geology professor Qing-zhu Yin. After being preserved for billions of years in the cold storage of deep space, the new meteorite sample "allows us to examine the solar system in its infancy."
Yin was among those who rushed to the El Dorado County foothills in April 2012 after the shower of space rock struck Earth near Coloma, about 60 miles east of the UC Davis campus, in what scientists have called the Sutter's Mill event.
"It's just awesome," Yin said. "It's at a gold discovery site and nature's wonder is happening."
Tearing through space, the mass was about 100,000 pounds and roughly the size of a minivan, scientists said.
It announced its entry into Earth's atmosphere with a roar, carrying the force of a 4-kiloton bomb and issuing an explosion heard as far away as Washington state. Much of the meteorite disintegrated at that time.
It was a stunning find, not only because fragments of the hulking mass landed on Earth just 2 pounds survived the journey, scientists said but because of what researchers would later discover.
The material, scientists said, is among the rarest to reach our planet. Known as a carbonaceous chondrite, the stony meteorite contains cosmic dust and elements that predate the solar system.
Yin, NASA researchers, residents and private collectors scooped up many of the smaller bits. They initially collected 77 pieces of meteorite, about 935 grams, Yin said.
A private collector eventually bought the main 205-gram mass and contacted Arizona State University professor and meteorite expert Meenakshi Wadhwa, head of that ASU's Center for Meteorite Studies.
Wadhwa arranged for the rock to be divvied up among UC Davis, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., American Museum of Natural History in New York City, The Field Museum in Chicago, and Arizona State University.
Yin and other researchers are eager to get to work extracting pre-solar grains, performing analysis on amino acids trapped in the rock, while preserving the samples for years of future study, all to answer the questions of the planets' origins locked deep in space.
"To unlock the mystery of the solar system?" Yin said. "It's awesome."
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