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Rare meteorite promises glimpse into dawn of creation

Vapor Trail
This image of the meteor's smoke trail was captured by Ewald Lemke of Atlin, British Columbia, on January 18  

March 17, 2000
Web posted at: 11:38 a.m. EST (1638 GMT)

In this story:

Carbonaceous chondrite spells 'life'

'Next best thing to mission to asteroid'

Cool-thinking collector bagged the prize


JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas (CNN) -- Pieces of a meteor that stunned viewers when it exploded in a giant fireball earlier this year could help explain the formation of solar system and life on Earth, scientists said this week.

U.S. and Canadian space geologists pronounced the unusually pristine pieces of the space rock as one of the most important meteorite finds in more than 30 years.


An anonymous collector found the fragments in the frozen Yukon and kept them in cold storage, giving scientists a unique sample of the early solar system.

Scientists say the fragments are from a rare type of meteorite that contains a variety of complex organic compounds.

"It's a once in a lifetime deal. No one has ever recovered a meteorite and kept it this pristine. It may never happen again," NASA mineralogist Michael Zolensky said.

The 4.5 billion-year-old fragments will offer a glimpse into the original composition of the solar system before the planets formed, said Zolensky, who is studying a few samples at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"These meteorite fragments are of immense scientific value and interest," echoed Dr. Richard Herd, curator of National Collections for the Geological Survey of Canada, in a statement.

Carbonaceous chondrite spells 'life'

The meteorite streaked across the night sky over the Yukon in January, producing sonic booms, green flashes, a foul odor and a detonation with as much energy as several kilotons of TNT.

"It was probably one of the brightest fireballs over the Earth in the past decade," Zolensky said.

The crumbly, black, porous rock fragments have charred, pocked surfaces and retain the smell of sulfur. They look like used charcoal briquettes.

But they actually are examples of carbonaceous chondrite, a rare meteorite type that holds many kinds of carbon and organics, the basic ingredients in the primordial soup from which life arose.

Only about 2 percent of meteorites known to have reached Earth are carbonaceous chondrites, which tend to deteriorate when they enter the atmosphere or during weathering on the ground.

Meteor Fragment
NASA mineralogist Michael Zolensky holds one of the recovered fragments of the Yukon meteor  

'Next best thing to mission to asteroid'

The last time a similar carbonaceous chondrite fell to Earth and was recovered was 31 years ago. But like most others, those fragments thawed, which may have allowed some of their secrets to escape, Zolensky said.

"No one has had a chance to (study) a frozen meteorite like this one. We expect to find a lot of neat new things that previously had been lost," he said. "It's the next best thing to having a mission go to an asteroid."

Because of the violence of the meteorite fireball, Zolensky said, "I never thought there would be a high chance of recovery of anything but dust."

A NASA research plane flew over the area several days after the blast, combing the air to collect particles from the meteorite trail. Those results are pending.

Cool-thinking collector bagged the prize

The meteorite finder, who wished to remain anonymous, recovered two pounds of fragments from the snow-covered ground of the Yukon, which provided near-ideal conditions for preservation.

He kept the fragments continuously frozen in plastic bags and loaned them to the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa, which provided a pound for the Johnson Space Center to study.

They are the only newly fallen meteorite fragments found and transferred to a laboratory without thawing, NASA said. Keeping them constantly frozen reduces the risk that organics and other volatile compounds will escape.

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Rock hunter finds second Mars meteorite known in U.S.
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'Nomad' combs no-man's-land for meteors
January 24, 2000
NASA releases first color image of asteroid
February 17, 2000

ANSMET - The Antarctic Search for Meteorites
Mars Meteorite Home Page (JPL)
Nine Planets: Meteorites and Impacts

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