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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.

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"Getting to see one is something special," he said. He added, "most meteors you see in the night's sky are the size of tiny stones or even grains of sand, and their trail lasts all of a second or two."

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The meteor probably weighed about 154,300 pounds, said Bill Cooke, a specialist in meteors at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. At the time of disintegration, he said, it probably released energy equivalent to a 5-kiloton explosion — the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons.

"You don't often have kiloton rocks flying over your head," he said.

The boom, another expert said, was caused by the speed with which the space rock entered the atmosphere. Meteorites enter Earth's upper atmosphere at somewhere between 22,000 mph and 44,000 mph — faster than the speed of sound, thus creating a sonic boom.

The friction between the rock and the air is so intense that "it doesn't even burn it up, it vaporizes," said Tim Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center at Harvard University.

John T. Wasson, a longtime professor and expert in meteorites at UCLA's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, said he understood that in addition to Lotus, another small meteorite had been in nearby Coloma,

Bits of the meteor could be strewn over an area as long as 10 miles, most likely stretching west from Coloma, he said.

"I'm sure more will be found, I'm hoping, including some fairly big pieces," Wasson said. "The fact that two pieces already have been found means one knows where to look."

Wasson suspected hundreds of dealers and collectors already have joined the search. He said it was important to recover the meteorites soon because any rain will cause them to degrade, losing their sodium and potassium.

"From my viewpoint as a meteorite researcher," he said, "I'm hopeful some big pieces are found right away."

Yeomens confirmed this type of meteorite is one of the oldest, dating to the origin of the solar system 4 to 5 billion years ago. And it's "actually kind of unusual," he said.

Yeomens said it's got two of the most important chemicals that scientists look for: carbon and a form of water. In fact, this type of space rock is likely full of water and would have made a good candidate for the new space company announced Tuesday that plans to mine asteroids, he said.

"And this one landed in their backyard for a lot less than they planned to spend," he said.

The mini-van sized asteroid wasn't on NASA's lengthy list of near Earth objects that they track coming close to the planet, so it took scientists by surprise. "There are millions of objects of that size that we don't know about," he said. "They're too small to image unless they're right up on top of you."

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AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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