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Aug 22, 2013 08:55 AM EDT

Five US Institutions Will Share Parts of Rare Meteorite That Exploded Over California

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Five lucky U.S. academic institutions will be sharing the biggest known fragment of a rare meteorite that exploded over California last year in April 2012, according to the Field Museum of Natural History. The museum administrators believe that by distributing the pieces, the meteorite can be preserved for current and future scientific studies.

 This valuable meteorite segment weighing 205 grams will be cut and given to the Field Museum in Chicago; the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington; the American Museum of Natural History in New York; Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.; and the University of California-Davis.

The meteorite, otherwise known as 'Sutter's Mill Meteorite,' was roughly the size of a minivan before it exploded over California in April. The explosion was witnessed in  Sacramento, Calif. , Las Vegas, and a few northern parts of Nevada at 7:51 a.m EDT.

 Less than 950 grams of the meteorite fragments have been found. Its main mass weighs just 205 grams (less than half a pound) and is about the size of a human palm.

Scientists are still gathering the fragments of the meteorite and so far they have collected 75 pieces as of November 2012.

The meteorite fragment weighing 205 gm, the largest of all, was previously owned by private collector Robert Haag who surrendered it to Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of Arizona State University's Center for Meteorite Studies.

Scientists determined the meteorite's age and chemical composition with a CT scan . The artifact might be nearly 4.5 billion years old, almost as old as the solar system and contains cosmic dust and presolar materials that helped form the planets of the solar system.

"The reason that we're excited about this meteorite is, [it] witnessed the beginning of the solar system," said Qing-Zhu Yin, a geologist who specializes in meteorites at UC Davis. "If we want to unlock the secret of what happened 4 1/2 billion years ago leading to the formation of the solar system, this was a bystander from that point."

The Smithsonian's believe that the meteorite, one of the rarest to hit Earth, could possibly give new insights into the birth of the universe. But, right now, the scientists do not have the necessary tools to study these rare pieces of meteorite.

Philipp Heck, Field Museum curator said that 'future generations of scientists who will be armed with analytical tools which we can only dream of today" can study these pieces someday.

 "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," Yin said. "Fifty or 100 years from now, we may have new technology that will enable later generations to revisit the meteorite and do research we haven't thought of. This gives us a better chance to realize the full scientific value of the meteorite, rather than have it be just a collector's item."

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