California fireball drops rare meteorites

Robert Ward holds a piece of the meteorite from the fireball that streaked across central California and Nevada Sunday morning. Thanks and credit to Dave Gheesling

The first fragments of the California-Nevada daylight fireball were recovered Tuesday by Robert Ward, one of the most prolific meteorite hunters in the world. Ward lives in Arizona and has been fascinated by meteorites since witnessing a fireball as a boy in 1986. In the late 1980s he found his first meteorite and today his collection of personal finds includes space rocks from almost 500 localities. You can read more about Ward in this story by fellow meteorite hunter David Gheesling.

Ward and other meteorite hunters would be looking for black stones that stand out from the native rocks. Freshly-fallen meteorites are coated in a thin layer of black, melted rock called fusion crust from heat generated  by friction and pressure with the air as they fall to Earth. He may also be using a metal detector as many meteorites contain specks of iron-nickel metal.

After a preliminary assessment, it appears that the California fall is a particularly rare type of meteorite called a CM carbonaceous chondrite. I know that’s a mouthful so bear with me. CMs are rich in carbon and contain water and complex organic compounds including amino acids. Here on Earth, amino acids are used by our cells to build the proteins that make and power our bodies.

A fragment of the Murchison meteorite that fell in Australia in 1969. The vial contains microscopic diamonds also found within the rock.

One of the most famous CM chondrites (KON-drites) fell on September 28, 1969 near the town of Murchison, Australia. Some 254 lbs. or 100 kg of specimens were recovered from the Murchison fall.

Local people who picked up the pieces right after the fall said the meteorite smelled like methanol (a form of alcohol), a sure sign that it contained organic compounds.

Closeup of the first meteorites found by Robert Ward from the California fall. Notice the bumpy fusion crust on the piece at right. Credit: Dave Gheesling

Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., estimates that the meteoroid was about the size of a minivan and weighed in at around 154,300 pounds before it struck the atmosphere.  At the time of disintegration it released energy equivalent to a 5-kiloton explosion.

While most meteorites trace their origins to asteroids, CM chondrites like the California fall might be fragments of a comet, which are rich in water and have similar compositions.

Comet Hale-Bopp from April 1997. It was one of the brightest, easiest to see comets in decades. Credit: E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes-Kepler-Observatory, Linz, Austria

At the center of all comets is a several-mile-diameter, irregularly shaped “nucleus” made of ice and dust. And it’s as black as a charcoal briquette. Everything we associate with a comet – the glowing head and bright tail – are created when heat and light from the sun boil off and illuminate ice, dust and other rocky materials from the nucleus.

Comets are fragile and known to regularly break into pieces under the stress of solar heat and gravity. CM chondrites like the California fall are also nearly black inside and out. Perhaps, just perhaps, they’re pieces from a long ago shattered comet.

They sure look like chunks of asphalt, but no, these are two additional meteorites from the California fall. The white, circular flecks are chondrules, some of the earliest solid matter to form in the solar system. Credit: Dave Gheesling

There’s been some talk that the meteor – especially given its possible connection to a comet – may be related to the Lyrid meteor shower that peaked this weekend. It’s not. The fireball came from the east in roughly the direction of the sun; the Lyrid radiant was high in the western sky at the time of the fall.

The daylight fireball that streaked over California and Nevada around 8 a.m. this past Sunday. It broke up as it traveled, dropping meteorites onto the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near the small town of Coloma. Credit and copyright: Lisa Warren

The meteor's flight path recorded by Doppler weather radar. Ground track is shown below it.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

39 thoughts on “California fireball drops rare meteorites

    • Thanks Dean for the link and photos. Just so others who view these pictures understand, the meteorite has not yet been named. Calling it the “Lotus” meteorite is premature.

  1. Is there a way to contact Robert Ward. I have looked all over the web and can’t find anything. An e-mail address would be great. I would like to share some information with him. Thank you :)

    • Hi Kevin,
      No formal name has been given to the meteorite yet. It normally takes a complete analysis and classification of a new meteorite before a name is given. Sometimes people come up with a working name at the time based on a good guess, but not until the Meteoritical Society publishes it in their database is the name set in stone. For instance, the Ash Creek, Texas meteorite that fell in 2009 was called “West” for a long time until published. The 2010 Mifflin, Wis. fall was informally called Livingston. Here’s the link to the database if you’re interested: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meteor/metbull.php?code=16875

  2. I just wanted to thank you for posting these photos. Fascinating stuff.

    I know little about meteorites but I remember reading a Michael Chrichton novel
    years ago that included a space rock that was contaminated with a deadly substance
    that could threaten our planet or humans anyway.
    If you found one, how would you know it was safe? I realize they must have been exposed to extreme heat, but still?????

    Jim from Maine

    • Hi Jim,
      You’re welcome and thanks for your kind words. I’m not aware of anything in a meteorite that might cause harm though some people are allergic to nickel, a common element found in the metal in meteorites. I know people take precautions not to ingest dust when they’re cutting meteorites with a high-speed saw. Meteorites aren’t radioactive, don’t have space bugs (none yet anyway) and are safe to handle, polish,etc. like other Earth rocks. Only their outer skins are affected by heat – the insides, especially when picked up right after they fall, are pristine like the asteroids from which they came. I’ve examined hundreds and though some people think I’m odd at times, it’s probably not the meteorites’ fault :)

  3. Were any fragments found farther East? I heard that explosion like it was in the neighbors house. I thought a propane tank had exploded. I have heard reports of smoke near Camino, but have seen nothing in news reports about that. Are radar images recorded so that the field shown near Coloma can be the definitive site, or might there be other pieces. I heard other rumblings after the first explosion. I thought big rocks might be rolling down the mountainside in the canyon near our home 11 miles east of Pollock Pines. It sounded a little like thunder rumblings after a lightening strike. Neighbors up the hill from us said they thought the sound came from near Highway 88, like blasting of some kind. Obviously the origin is now known ,but I will use your website to keep an eye on new finds. Extremely interesting! My thoughts were, damn, the Dinosaurs didn’t get much warning did they.

    • Larry,
      Yes, pity the dinosaurs. Hopefully we humans will get a warning before the next big one. I’ve updated my blog on the meteorite fall with a Doppler radar image showing the sky and ground track of the meteor. You’ll see that Coloma is right on target as are other areas to the west. Here’s the link again: http://tinyurl.com/6n3vtaw

  4. I found a meteorite in the late 50′s that I would like to get tested. It weighs about a half pound or a little more. When it hit the tree the meterorite split in half. I have both halves.

  5. I witnessed something very bright falling from the sky in the early fall of last year. It was as if someone was using an asedaline torch in the sky. It was in the day time between 1 and 5PM. I know EXACTLY where I was and I can point in the direction of the fall and the locations where the bright object broke into pieces.

    I watch the show on TV about meteorite hunters but didn’t know how to contract them.

    Then I heard about this store so I’m hoping someone may be interested to come here in Hillsborough NJ so I can take them to where I saw this and maybe I can help them find what it was.

    Best regards and keep up the great work you are all doing here!!

    Joe

  6. I live here in Lotus, and my house is almost directly under the initial ‘blast’. I’ll be doing some hiking in some of the remote parts of the scatter area to see if I can find anything interesting. I’ve read that the type of meteorite that this is suspected to be (CM chondrites) are highly susceptible to rain damage; is that true? It’s a shame that it rained so heavily Wednesday night to Thursday afternoon.

    Besides a ‘charcoal’ or ‘coal’ like appearance, and a uniform black composition, is there any other characteristics I should look for?

    Daimeion

    • Daimeion,
      You’re right, they are more susceptible to breakdown from rain than some other types of meteorites. They will probably be rounded. Also look for lipping and flow lines in the crust. If the fragment is broken, the inside will contain white, roughly circular patches called chondrules. I wish you the best of luck in your hunt.

  7. Hi Bob, My husband a I reside here in Lotus, Ca. and he may have found a piece of the meteorite. Are you still here in town? We live on 5 acres and are curious to find out. Martha

    • Hi Martha,
      Sorry, but unfortunately I’m not in your area. The Astro Bob reference in Yahoo incorrectly referred to Robert Ward by that name. I’m here in the Midwest. Sure wish I could come over and see your specimen.

  8. Great site, Bob! Thanks for all the useful info! We were out in Lotus today taking a look for meteorites. Realizing that it rained, and not expecting to have much luck — I wasn’t quite sure what we were looking for. What, exactly, does rain do to meteorites, and what would one look like after being exposed to rain?

    For what it’s worth – a girl came up and asked me to take a look at a rock she found. I’m fairly certain she found a nice piece of meteorite (but again, I’m a completely novice). It was like no rock I had seen in the area… or ever. :) I’m hoping she’ll find this page – and let us know if she was able to confirm if it was or was not a meteorite piece.

    Can you also tell me if the pieces being found react to a magnet or not?

    Thanks! Happy hunting everyone!

    • Hi Kim,
      Lots of meteorites make it through rain, snow and temperature extremes for many years before crumbling to nothing. Rusting starts quickly in wet environments and from there it’s a slow slide downhill. Some meteorites like this one are more friable or likely to break apart more quickly than a metal one. I really can’t say how quickly since I’m not that familiar with this particular one. I’m sure what fell will make it through more than a few rains – in other words, they’ll be there for years. Water and air will alter them which is why people, especially scientists, want to find meteorites as soon as possible after a fall.
      I’ve been told metal detectors are no good on this one since it has a very low amount of metal. That doesn’t mean it might not react to the strong pull of a rare earth magnet. I’ll see if I can find that out.

  9. Thank you, Bob! Your site is a plethora of information — love it. We’re heading back out soon… just trying to figure out where to head that hasn’t already been covered. If anyone knows about the benefits of using magnets to help find them – we’re all ears! Thanks again!

    • Hi Kim,
      Magnets won’t help with this one. Attraction is little. The best way is to study the pictures of what’s been found so far and look for the same. I was on a hunt in Wisconsin with experienced meteorite hunters. That one had much more metal than the fall in Sutter’s Mill but no one I was aware of was using a metal detector. They focused on smooth, black rocks that stood out from the landscape. Good luck! I truly hope you find one.

  10. My wife found the 8.5 gram stone on Friday, 4/27/2012 after just 20 minutes of searching. I have identified some locations of found stones and we followed that direction to a new location and she just walked up and picked it off the grass. Very happy for her now.

    Thanks for the great site Bob.

  11. Hi, I was looking for mateorite information and found this website. I was with a friend today walking my god in the countriside in the hills of Toledo, Spain. It was about 7:30 in the afternoon. It was very sunny still since it doesn’t get dark until 10:00 at night here in Spain. We saw this great oval shape stone of a bright blue light. It came down very fast but towards the ground and we saw the shape of it. It was as big as an oval table. We think it was a meteorite, but we didn’t hear or saw any impact on the grown. We look for it but couldn’t find anything. Could this phenomenon be a meteorite? Any explanation will be appreciated.
    Thank you
    Rita from Spain.

    • Hi Rita,
      It sounds like a brilliant fireball that may have completely burned up in the atmosphere. It’s also possible that some small fragments far from where you were survived and reached the ground as meteorites. Any one else report it?

  12. Hi, i was looking for a information about meteorite and then i found this website which could help me to clarify. i was with my mom sitting in a frontyard of my house gazing at night sky in our town Nanjangud, India. it was about 8:45pm. we saw a great oval shape red stone with fire like at its back. It came very fast that we were not able to identify were it vanished within few seconds. we think it was a meteorite but nothing fell to the ground. could this be a meteorite? any explanation will be appreciated. THANK YOU.
    Meghana N Sharma from INDIA

    • Hi Meghana,
      You saw a bright meteor called a fireball. Although meteors look like they’re very close by, most all of them are really far away. The fiery appearance happens when the meteor is about 70 miles high. Unless you heard it boom, it most likely didn’t drop any meteorites.

  13. I wonder if there are reports of a fireball in the 1980′s that was very bright. I was driving on a remote mountain road, on my way to Shelter Cove, Calif. I was at the top of a ridge and saw what I thought to be the landing light of an small private plane up and off to my right. Being at the top of the mouton, I could see all around me and there were no other lights, it was dark. The object developed a tail that got longer and longer, and I realized it was not a plane but a comet. I stopped my car to watch, and I can report the comet moved almost horizontally in the sky, was large and very bright, moving from left to right, and I was facing west. Eventually the tail started shortening, and it occured to me that the comet was leaving the atmosphere. It turned back into just a ball of light, and it kept going, and eventually disappeared. It graphically gave me a sense of the rim of the atmosphere, I sensed how the comet had dipped through the atmosphere and escaped. I do not recall any colors, it seemed to all be fairly bright white light.
    I was wondering if others saw this phenomena, I am curious when it happened?
    Also, after reading all the news stories in the last few days on comets, I now realize it might come back.
    I also have a separate query. In the news stories leading up to yesterdays pass by of the comet, it was mentioned that it needed to pass through a certain “window” in space, if it did it meant that it would not be on a collision course with earth in it’s future return, and if it did not pass through that “window” coordinate, then it was of concern. I have not been able to find any mention in the news stories (probably because everyone is focussed on the Russian meteor instead) as to if if went through the “window”. Anybody know if it did?
    Thank you!

    • Mack,
      Thank you for sharing your story. What you saw however was not a comet. Comets generally move very slowly across the sky; even the bright, naked eye ones are in approximately the same spot from one night to the next. What you more likely saw was a bright meteor or possibly a satellite re-entry. Those happen at the speed you describe. The “window” may have been a reference to another near-Earth asteroid Apophis. You can Google it for more info. I have not heard about a window for 2012 DA14.

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