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'Gold Rush Meteorite' is an Extraterrestrial Treasure Trove

Nov 12, 2014 10:45 AM EST

Back in 2012, a meteorite managed to puncture through Earth's atmosphere and slam into the ground of California's Gold Country - a historic region that attracted waves of 49ers during the 1849 gold rush. Ironically, this "Gold Rush meteorite" doesn't boast any yellow precious metals. Instead, it seems to be packed full of diamonds and other treasures.

Studying this meteorite, researchers hope to gain insight about the early days of our solar system, as meteorites are hardy remnants of that time. The Gold Rush meteorite, called the Sutter's Mill meteorite, in particular holds some intriguing mysteries, as it boasts diamond crystals considerably larger than what is expected.

"The two 10-micron diamond grains we found in this meteorite are too small to sparkle in a ring," Mike Zolensky, a space scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement. "But their size is much larger than the nanometer-sized diamonds commonly found in such meteorites."

The nanometer diamonds he mentions have hinted about the early solar system before, as these kids of diamonds are thought to commonly form in the rolling atmospheres of young stars. However, larger crystals like what we're seeing with the Sutter Mill space-rock may have come from somewhere else entirely.

"We suspect that these diamonds are so-called xenoliths," said Yoko Kebukawa late of Hokkaido University, Japan. "Bits and pieces that originated in the interior of other much larger parent bodies." (Scroll to read on...)

Other xenolith chunks have proven "treasures" of a different sort - knowledge and a bit more mystery. Investigators determined that the rock was superheated in the last 100,000 years, but this heating was uneven.

"I don't know of any similar meteorites that contain both heated and unheated materials," added Zolensky. "Some materials were heated to 932 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Celsius), while others clearly were not."

Unusual materials not seen in any other meteorites, including a very unusual calcium sulfide called oldhamite (a possible xenolith), may be remnants of the solar system's very beginnings, untouched since the formation of the meteorite.

Consortium leader Peter Jenniskens, at NASA's Ames Research Center, added that this study of the Gold Rush meteorite, as described in a whopping 13 papers in the November issue of Meteoritics & Planetary Science, hints at what we stand to find after launching an asteroid capture mission in the near-future.

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