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Scientists use airship to look for meteorites

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 3 2012 9:06 p.m. MDT

NASA scientist Peter Jenniskens, second from right, leaders of a group of researchers searching for pieces of a meteorite, goes over the search plan before take off from McClellan Air Park in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, May 3, 2012. Researchers from NASA and the SETI Institute are using the zeppelin, Eureka for their aerial search in hope of spotting sites where large fragments landed after a meteor exploded in the atmosphere over the Sierra Nevada in late April. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A group of scientists took to the skies in a slow-moving airship Thursday in search of meteorites that rained over California's gold country last month.

It's the latest hunt for extraterrestrial fragments from the April 22 explosion that was witnessed over a swath of Northern California and Nevada.

Treasure hunters have swarmed the Sierra Nevada foothills over the past two weeks, snatching up pieces of meteorites. Most of the recovered space rocks have been tiny, with the largest weighing in at 19 grams, or the weight of one AA battery.

Researchers from NASA and the nonprofit SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., were on the lookout for larger fragments. After a brief weather delay, they took off from a Sacramento airfield aboard an airship outfitted with sensors and cameras.

Days after the approximately 154,300-pound meteor plunged through Earth's atmosphere with a loud sonic boom that was heard from Sacramento to Las Vegas, Jenniskens organized a team and found a 4-gram meteorite in the parking lot of a park.

NASA estimated the minivan-sized meteor released energy equal to one-third the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. An event this size occurs once a year usually over unpopulated areas.

Initial inspection of rock fragments indicates this type of meteorite is among the oldest, dating to the solar system's birth 4 billion to 5 billion years ago.

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