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Meteor hunters; Treasure seekers strike pay dirt in Gold Country

In the weeks since a fireball shot across the sky and exploded, scattering a rare type of meteorite over California's Gold Country, the hills of Coloma-Lotus Valley have drawn a new rush of treasure seekers.

Once again there are lively saloons, fortune hunters jockeying for prime spots and astounding tales of luck -- including that of Brenda Salveson, who found a valuable space rock while walking her dog, Sheldon, named after the theoretical physicist on the TV show "The Big Bang Theory."

It started April 22, Earth Day, with a blazing streak across a morning sky and a sonic boom that shook windows. About 800 miles away, Robert Ward in Prescott, Ariz., was getting alerts. A 35-year-old professional meteorite hunter and dealer, he pays for tips and keeps a bag packed, ready to go anywhere in the world to chase a meteorite.

On April 24, after 16 hours of driving, he scanned a parking lot in Lotus in the predawn not knowing what type of rock he was seeking. But when he spotted a dark space pebble, he immediately recognized it as carbonaceous chondrite, meteorites containing water and carbon -- the type scientists long to study for insights into how life began on Earth and possibly in other places.

"I was trembling," Ward said. "It's the rarest of the rare. It's older than the sun. It holds the building blocks of life."

The rush was on. The meteorites are invaluable to science but on the open market can fetch $1,000 a gram, or more for larger, pristine pieces.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, Paul Gessler, a part-time meteorite hunter, was readying for a halibut fishing tournament when he read about Ward's find on a hobbyists Twitter feed. He told his wife he was driving to California.

At the NASA Ames Research Center north of San Jose, Beverly Girten, deputy director in charge of the center's experiments on the International Space Station, announced she was going to Coloma. Her boss reminded her of a conference call about a $40 million budget. Girten said meteorites with organic compounds could prove more important to science.

In the Gold Rush town of Rescue, Salveson read a local news article about the meteorites. The field scattered with them, about three miles wide and 10 miles long, included Henningsen Lotus Park, where she walks her dog every morning. She noted what to look for: a rock that seemed out of place -- different from anything around it. It would be dark and delicate.

Near the end of her stroll, Salveson picked up a rock the size of a spool of thread that seemed to match the description. She walked over to a group with metal detectors.

"I opened my hand and they all let out a collective gasp," she said.

The geologists, as they turned out to be, wrapped the stone in foil and told Salveson to get it into a bank vault as soon as possible. At 17 grams, it's the largest of the meteorites found so far.

A few minutes before, a firefighter had stopped to search at the park on his way to work and found a 2-gram meteorite in less than 20 minutes. A dealer paid him $2,000 on the spot.

"We want to learn about this asteroid," said Peter Jenniskens, an astronomer and senior research scientist at the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and the NASA Lunar Science Institute. "This is scientific gold."

But the time window to get the clues from outer space into a lab is small. Already, the chemistry of the rocks could be changing, and a heavy rain would dissolve them.

Jenniskens asked members of the public to join him and other researchers to look for meteorites. Thirty volunteers signed a form promising to turn over to NASA anything they found. But the majority of the individuals scouring grassy fields near where James Marshall found a piece of gold in 1848 did not sign on with the scientists, sticking to a prospector's creed of finders-keepers.

Derek Sears, a NASA research scientist and editor of Meteorite magazine, led a for-research group that included George Cooper, a NASA expert in analyzing organic compounds in meteorites. Earlier in the morning, Sears had encouraged Salveson to give her meteorite to science.

"We're paupers, but what can I do to get that meteorite for research?" he asked.

A person's universe can sometimes shift swiftly. Salveson went from hoping to get caught up on laundry to having long talks with NASA and offers in the tens of thousands of dollars for the meteorite.

She pointed out that the town of Rescue was named by a man who found a piece of gold that "rescued" his family. But she has not decided what she will do yet.

"I went from first hearing how much money it was worth to finding out the awe of it. I'm amazed at the journey it's taken to fall to Earth before I picked it up," she said. "I'm glad I found it. But I'm also just glad it was found. It's an astonishing thing."