Meteorite hunters scour hills near Sutter's Mill, site of California gold rush

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

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"?

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.

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.

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!

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.

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