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California meteorite reveals secrets thanks to crowdsourcing (+video)

Recently published research describes a collection of meteorite pieces that landed in California in April. The study came about through a group effort dubbed "crowdsourcing" by the lead scientist.   

By Elizabeth HowellSpace.com / December 20, 2012


Barely eight months after a fireball lit up California and Nevada skies, the first scientific paper is out examining the meteorites it left behind.

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"It was done very quickly," said Peter Jenniskens, a meteor researcher who suddenly found himself managing a small army of volunteers when the Sutter's Mill meteor broke up April 22.

Dozens of scientists jumped to Jenniskens' aid as he searched for meteorite fragments. But less publicized will be the volunteers who phoned in reports of meteorites, or sent in pictures and video of the fireball by e-mail.

Jenniskens' team commandeered an airship to search for fragments. Meanwhile, the team caught a lucky break — Doppler radar information from nearby weather stations showed the track of the meteorite. Adding this data to the pictures and video sent in by volunteers, the scientists could reconstruct the impacting asteroid's early history. [Photos: Fireball Drops Meteorites On California]

According to Jenniskens, the paper, to be published Friday (Dec. 21) in the journal Science, was made possible by the mass crowdsourcing effort that enabled a large amount of data to be collected in a short time.

"It's all very important, and it's fantastic how this came together," said Jenniskens, a meteor astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). "For me, it was personally very exciting."

Peeling back the years

The Sutter's Mill meteorite turned out to be a rare type — a carbonaceous chondrite that contains information about the early stages of the solar system. The meteorite pieces originated in a space rock that was perhaps as much as 3.3 yards (3 meters) across.

A space rock is called an asteroid or meteoroid until it hits the Earth's atmosphere. The resulting fireball is then called a meteor until it hits the ground, at which point it is dubbed a meteorite.

The asteroid that would later impact California orbited the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, making about three trips around our star in the time it takes Jupiter to orbit once. Such a ratio, known as a resonance, is common in the solar system — some of Jupiter's moons are in resonance with each other, for example.

The asteroid's resonance was a little "off" from a perfect 3 to 1 ratio. At some point, Jupiter's strong gravity muscled the asteroid out of its normal orbit and sent it on a trip to the inner solar system. This pushed the asteroid into a new orbit that brought it in as far as Mercury's orbit when it got closest to the sun.

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