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California fireball produces jackpot for meteorite hunters (+video)

Meteorite hunter finds pieces of a mini-bus sized meteor that lit up in the skies above California and Nevada this week. More pieces of the meteor are expected to be found as hunters scour the area.

By Scott SonnerAssociated Press / April 26, 2012

Robert Ward displays one of two pieces of a meteorite he found at a park in Lotus, Calif., April 25, 2012. Ward found the pieces from a meteor that was probably about the size of a minivan when it entered the Earth's atmosphere with a loud boom about 8 a.m. Sunday.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

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Reno, Nevada

Robert Ward has been hunting and collecting meteorites for more than 20 years, so he knew he'd found something special in the Sierra foothills along the path of a flaming fireball that shook parts of Northern California and Nevada with a sonic boom over the weekend.

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And scientists have confirmed his suspicions: it's one of the more primitive types of space rocks out there, dating to the early formation of the solar system 4 to 5 billion years ago.

"It was just, needless to say, a thrilling moment," Ward of Prescott, Ariz., told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday as he walked through an old cemetery in search of more meteorites about 35 miles northeast of Sacramento.

He found the first piece on Tuesday along a road between a baseball field and park on the edge of Lotus near Coloma, where James W. Marshall first discovered gold in California, at Sutter's Mill in 1848.

Ward, who has found meteorites in every continent but Antarctica and goes by "AstroBob" on his website, said he "instantly knew" it was a rare meteorite known as "CM" — carbonaceous chondrite — based in part on the "fusion crusts from atmospheric entry" on one side of the rock.

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"It is one of the oldest things known to man and one of the rarest types of meteorites there is," he said. "It contains amino acids and organic compounds that are extremely important to science."

Ward actually has two rocks but suspects they were part of the same small meteorite that broke on impact. Each weighs about 10 grams — about the same as two nickels. He said his only previous finds that rival this one were three lunar meteorites he found years ago in the Middle East.

Experts say the flaming meteor was probably about the size of a minivan when it entered the Earth's atmosphere with a loud boom and about one-third of the explosive force of the atomic bomb. It was seen from Sacramento, Calif., to Las Vegas and parts of northern Nevada.

An event of that size might happen once a year around the world, said Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "But most of them occur over the ocean or an uninhabited area, he said.

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