Meteorite Hunters Scour Hills Near Sutter’s Mill, Site Of California Gold Rush

Mike Farmer of Arizona hunts for meteorites from Sunday's fall in the brush of northern California near Coloma. Click photo to go to Marc Fries' website for updated Doppler data and track information if you'd like to search for meteorites yourself. Thanks and credit to Mike Bandli

There’s been lots of excitement about the meteorites that fell from the California fireball. Hunters have converged around the town of Coloma, home of the famed Sutter’s Mill where the California gold rush started. Is there a more fitting place for the start of a “meteorite gold rush”?

Yikes! A rattlesnake meteorite hunter Mike Bandli came across yesterday during the hunt. Credit: Mike Bandli

According to meteorite hunter Mike Farmer of Arizona, as of Thursday morning only about 15 grams or about half an ounce of material has been found. Rattlesnakes and tough terrain have made looking for space rocks no easy task.

Sunday’s fall is only the 3rd witnessed fall of a meteorite in California. The other two were Red Canyon Lake on August 11, 2007 and San Juan Capistrano on March 15, 1973. The first was a single stone weighing picked up by a hiker that weighed just 18.4 grams; the second fall dropped two small stones. One of them penetrated the roof of a carport in a mobile-home park and was picked up on the floor several hours later. Both falls were much more common stony meteorites compared to the rare carbonaceous or carbon-rich variety from the current fall.

A slice of the carbonaceous chondrite NWA 3118 from the Sahara Desert. The round dots are chondrules (KON-drools). They were formed from the original dust of the solar nebula that evolved into the planets. Early on, the dust was flash-heated and congealed into tiny spheres. The white mineral, called a calcium-aluminum-inclusion, is slightly older than the chondrules. Photo: Bob King

You may have heard the new meteorites called by several names: Sutter’s Mill, Lotus, Coloma. While one of these may ultimately be chosen by the Meteoritical Society as the formal name, for now they’re best guesses and convenient handles.

In 2009, a widely witnessed meteorite fall happened near West, Texas. For a long time it was referred to as the West meteorite until receiving its official name Ash Creek. I hunted the April 2010 fall in southern Wisconsin near the town of Livingston. Many of us referred to the fragments by that name until the Society designated it as Mifflin after another nearby town where specimens were found.

Here are the Society’s basic guidelines for naming a new meteorite whether from a fresh fall or one that’s been there a long time and just recently discovered. Most are named after the nearest town or feature of the landscape:

* A new meteorite shall be named after a nearby geographical locality. Every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary duplication or ambiguity, and to select a permanent feature such as a town, village, river, bay, cape, mountain or island which appears on widely used maps and is sufficiently close to the recovery site to convey meaningful locality information. In sparsely populated areas with few place names, less permanent features such as ranches or stations or, in extreme cases, local unofficial names of distinctive quality may be used, provided the latitude and longitude of the recovery site are well determined.

An endpiece of the stony meteorite NWA 869 from the Sahara. Most stony meteorites like this one originate from the crusts of asteroids. Credit: H. Raab

The rules go into much more depth to cover other circumstances like the glut of meteorites from the Sahara Desert that appear in marketplaces in Morocco and other North African countries or were sold to dealers in Europe and the U.S.

Specific locations for these orphan meteorites were often not recorded, so they’re all classed as NWA (Northwest Africa) followed by a number. One of the best known Saharan meteorites is NWA 869, classified as an L4-6 chondrite. There’s been a tremendous number of meteorites coming out of the Sahara since around the year 2000. Numbered NWAs are currently approaching 8000!

Sutter's Mill in Coloma, Calif. This is where the California Gold Rush began.

Often when there’s high interest in a particular meteorite fall like the one in California, the space rock gets named and classified more quickly. As you might guess, I’m rooting for Sutter’s Mill.

It was there that carpenter James W. Marshall, while working on the construction of the mill, found several gold nuggets in January 1848 that would lead to the gold rush so many of us remember from our grade school history books.

One last point. I’m often asked where a person can send a suspected meteorite to have it tested. You’ll find a list of testing services at Found A Meteorite?  The site reminds readers that real meteorites are found in less than 1% of submitted samples.

39 Responses

  1. craig

    I live near Coloma and would like to search for fragments of the recent meteor. Are Carbonaceous Chondrites ferrous, can I use a magnet or metal detector to find them? Any tips on how to find them or where to look (perhaps east facing slopes would be best)? Any input would be greatly appreciated thanks!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Craig,
      I wish I was in Coloma right now! Some carbonaceous chondrites have metal (some even a considerable amount) but many have little. I’ll ask one of the hunters if they’re getting much of a signal with their metal detectors on this one. One thing for sure to keep an eye out for are black, somewhat fragile rocks with very fresh, rippled or gently-indented fusion crust.
      PS. Hunters aren’t getting much of a signal because of low metal. Go by appearance as described above.

      1. craig

        Thanks for the info Astrobob! If they aren’t finding metals then I’ll plan on just a visual hunt. I’ll be sure to let you know if we have any good fortune. Cheers!

        1. astrobob

          Craig,
          That’s how everyone was hunting back in 2010 during the Mifflin fall. We walked up and down bean rows using our eyeballs only, looking for fresh, fusion-crusted rocks. Another little trick meteorite hunters employ is to drop a real meteorite on the ground once in a while, so they accustom their eyes on what to look for. Good luck in the hunt!

  2. Lily

    Dear AstroBob,

    Congratulations on your find. I do not purport to be even an amateur astronomer, but I confess that the story of the Sutter Mill event has aroused my interest. How did you know where to search, or was it just a lucky find? Also wondering whether only the main hunk is properly characterized as a meteorite, or whether every discreet piece which broke off is also considered a meteorite. Finally, why are the fragments so light when the main mass is so, well, massive? Thanks for any insights. Lily in Portland

    1. astrobob

      Lily,
      All the pieces are meteorites but the largest piece found is called the “main mass”. Most meteorites start out as a single piece before they hit the atmosphere. Many break into pieces due to the tremendous air pressures they experience during their supersonic flight toward Earth. Fragments vary in weight depending on size. A small, gravel-like fragment doesn’t weigh much just like a fragment of Earth gravel. This meteorite is basically a rock – small bits are light; big hunks much heavier.

  3. Trees

    To AstroBob, Have you ever looked into the Port Orford Meteorite? I’ve come across various reports during my research of the history of the Southern Oregon Coast. It sounds like it was huge and (in the sample that was sent to The Smithsonian) was determined to consist mostly of nickel. Just watch out for Sasquach if you choose to explore the woodlands here about. 🙂

    1. astrobob

      Hi Trees,
      I’d love to come out but I’ve got other commitments at the moment. I’ve read about Port Orford and as I recall it was a hoax.

  4. Bob in Cameron Park

    Hi Bob,
    My wife and I live about 10 mins from Coloma. We are going out tomorrow to the area where the Lotus Park meteor fragments were found. We know the area well. How can I get to the link of the great Google Map picture from your recent article that has the doppler radar enchancement? I’ve been to JPL and NASA sites with no success. By the way, the path of this meteor happens to be nearly straight down a canyon of the American River (running east to west). Would larger fragments generally go farther than the smaller frags found so far? Thanks, Bob in Cameron Park, CA

    1. astrobob

      Hi Bob,
      I don’t know how where I found that link – sorry. I looked all over for it but must have accidentally deleted the e-mail. I can tell you that the link didn’t provide anything of higher resolution. I had to stretch the image a bit as it was. You’re exactly right about the fragment distribution – the smaller ones drop first and the larger ones go further.

      1. Bob in Cameron Park

        Thanks, we have figured out an area of about 3 sq miles where its most likely given the direction provided by the Google map/radar. It’s west of the smaller fragments of course. We are going to try and recruit some friends. I’ll let you know if we find anything of interest!

  5. JOSE ORTEGA, CHILE

    Sr. busca meteoritos, Astro bob,soy buscador, pero de minas de minerales, y en mi paso encontré un yacimiento de condrulas en la comuna Catemu, provincia de san Felipe, Quinta Región de Valparaíso, junto al lado de una mina por oro, hay tierra ferrosa de color café oscuro, parecida me figuro yo como que fue un respiradero, me pregunto si habrá impactado un meteorito…no estoy muy seguro, pero lo que hallé se parece a globitos verdes chiquititos o esferas como señala en el dibujo hay hartas masas que parecen a la fotos expuesta. Además le comento que tengo en mi poder un meteorito, según detallo es una masa rocosa con hartos hoyitos, y pongo de vez en cuando mi lapiz.

      1. JOSE ORTEGA, CHILE

        Sr. Astro Bob, ningún problema, trataré de enviarle la foto a su correo.

        Saluda
        Atte. Ortega

  6. Holly (betts) Schwab

    Hello astrobob, congrats on your cool find. I was surprised when I saw you on yahoo news. Keep up the good work.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Holly,
      On Yahoo news? Are you sure it was me? I haven’t found any pieces of the meteorite, just reported on others who have. Do you have a link?

  7. JOSE ORTEGA, CHILE

    Sr. Astro Bob acá en la zona de Catemu, está plagada de de rocas con esferas diminutas de color verdes, yo soy de Chile; y este sector se llama Catemu, coordenada Norte 6.385.500 y Este 312.000, en el lado oriente del cerro El Chivato; dentro de esa zona, pero como le digo hay varias rocas o mazas con aquellas esferas diminutas que aparecen en su foto, que pensé que eran oxido de cobre, y como no eran las ignoré . Pero le comento como anécdota; ademas tengo un meteorito que mi papá se encontró en
    Iquique.
    Saludos

    1. astrobob

      Hi Holly,
      That’s pretty funny. They confused what I wrote about meteorite hunter Robert Ward with my blog name. Thanks!

  8. Lt33

    I was at the park today and a woman found a pretty nice sized one. She said it was 17 grams and it sure looked cool. No luck for me though

  9. L. B.

    I’m a Lotus resident too and am going out today to poke around. I live 3 miles, as the crow flies, south of Lotus Park…does anyone know how wide a path we might be looking at here? Maybe I should scour around my own property too. 🙂

  10. L. B.

    Oooh, just noticed the 3 sq. mile radius, well…I might be on the cutting edge, think I’ll kick around my 5 acres a bit first this morning. I did hear the sonic boom, went outside, my geese were going nuts, but had no idea the origins of the boom.

  11. Nice article Bob!
    Mike told me about the snake today! With all that grass, one has to be really careful!
    My trip was successful and I did not skunk! Might go back if the motherlode is found!

    Cheers!

    Jim Wooddell

  12. Mendy Ouzillou

    Bob,

    To answer some of the questions posed here.

    There is no free iron is this carbonaceous that I could tell. However, specimens are weakly attracted to an N50 neodymium magnet. Making this extra difficult is that the entire area is covered in serpentine and other magnetic rocks so metal detectors are obviously useless. Magnets will not really help in finding a specimen but can help to discriminate a find. I had people coming up to me with asphalt concretions and asking if they had found something. This is a very difficult meteorite to hunt on multiple levels.

    A 7X power magnifying glass is very useful to look for the chondrules in fragments to verify a find.

    I will have pics with closeups of the crust and chondrules of my finds by Sunday on my website.

    Mendy

    1. astrobob

      Thanks for the information, Mendy. Please let me know when the photos of your finds are up along with a link. Happy to hear you found something in hunt!

  13. Joel A.

    I live in Placerville about 10 minutes away and have friends and family who heard the boom and saw the flash. Interestingly, the friends that saw the flash, claimed they heard no noise whereas friends who heard the boom did not see the flash. In talking to residents of the region, it seems that certain locations heard the blast quite clearly whereas others didn’t hear it at all. I’m wondering if this is due to sounds being channeled through the canyons and mountains. Or is it possible that the rock broke into a few large pieces upon entering the atmosphere and then progressively broke up further from that point? In other words, could there be multiple epicenters or is there definitely only one? This website has been very helpful in finding information regarding this meteorite and other natural phenomena. Thank you AstroBob!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Joel,
      Glad you like the site. Thanks! What you suggest is certainly a possibility – that the meteorite progressively broke as it fell toward Earth vs. one big blast. Either way, the pieces fell along a large ellipse some 25 miles long called a strewnfield. I suppose much depends on what you were doing at the time of the fall, but I suspect correct again regarding canyons and mountains both enhancing and blocking the sonic booms produced by the falling rock(s).

  14. SSG Weaver

    I found some of what I believe to be fragments of the Sutters Mill Meteor. Where should I send them, and how does that process work as far as getting them back?

  15. cody burdette

    Hi I think I may have found a piece of the Sutter mill meteorite Ive tried contacting Dr. Jennisken with no response. Any other suggestions??? Its a size-able piece. i know its been bout a year since the meteorite hit.

    1. astrobob

      Cody,
      You can do several things. First, send me a couple clear, sharp photos and we can go from there. If you can’t contact Jenniskens and your specimen looks like the real thing, I’ll refer you to others or possibly a place where you can get it analyzed for a fee. My e-mail: rking@duluthnews.com

  16. J

    I was flying a night flight with a student on a beautiful clear night in the summer of 99 or 2000, and everything around us had a momentary blue white flash. I thought it was lightning, and queried ATC as I saw absolutely no clouds anywhere. They also were not painting any thunderheads. Then another pilot comes up on ATC frequency and says he saw a meteor explode overhead. I may be able to pinpoint the date.

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