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COLOMA-LOTUS VALLEY, Calif — In the week since a fireball shot across the sky and exploded, scattering a rare type of meteorite over California's Gold Country, these hills 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, a local who found a valuable space rock while walking her dog Sheldon, named after the theoretical physicist on the TV show "The Big Bang Theory."
Eight hundred miles away, while windows were still rattling, 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 Tuesday, after 16 hours of driving, he scanned a parking lot in Lotus in the pre-dawn 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.
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."