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    So We Just Broke a Giant 4 Billion-Year-Old Meteorite Into 5 Pieces

    Written by

    Ben Richmond

    Contributing Editor

    The meteor as seen from Reno, Nevada, April 22, 2012. Image credit: Lisa Warren via NASA

    Its trip began 4 to 5 billion years ago. It came to Earth as a 75-ton fireball one April day, and is now spread across the country in five tiny chunks.

    Some 205 grams of a rare meteorite that memorably exploded over the American West on April 22, 2012, will be preserved in five different academic institutions. Experts estimate it was the size of a minivan before it broke up over California. Its fiery entry into the Earth’s atmosphere was visible from Las Vegas to Sacramento, even in the broad daylight as it hurtled down at 33,500 mph.

    "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," said Don Yeomans, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "An event of this size might happen about once a year," he said. "But most of them occur over the ocean or an uninhabited area, so getting to see one is something special."

    The main mass, before being broken up via Linda Welzenbach/Smithsonian Institution

    So far only about 950 grams of the once-massive meteorite have been recovered near the Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra foothills, according to the Nevada Appeal. Researchers at the nearby University of California, Davis x-rayed and CT scanned the rock to determine its age and composition. They concluded that it was made of carbonaceous chondrite, making the meteorite an extremely rare find, even among meteorites, because it contains cosmic dust and pre-solar materials that helped form the planets of the solar system.

    The main mass was divided “reflective of each institution’s investment.” The Smithsonian in D.C., which did the dividing, will keep 34 percent; the American Museum of Natural History in New York will get 34 percent; Chicago’s Field Museum gets 16 percent, Arizona State takes 13; leaving UC Davis with 5 percent.

    Post-break up, via Smithsonian Institution

    Qing-zhu Yin, a UC Davis geology professor who took students to hunt for the meteorite’s remains, doesn’t seem bitter about the big East Coast institutions leaving him with 1/20 of the main mass. “With these museums and institutions storing the meteorite’s main mass, it leaves it in a pristine condition to preserve for future generations to study,” he told the Nevada Appeal.

    It might seem like an ignoble end for the space rock, which probably had been coasting around since the Earth was just a cooling ball of magma. On the other hand, this might just be one quick billion year stop, before it continues on its way.