Debris from meteorite found in Yukon Territory

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2000

ANCHORAGE - Debris from a meteorite that flashed in the sky over the Yukon Territory last month has been found on a snow-covered lake on the Klondike Highway.

A meteorite fragment weighing about 6 ounces was sent to the Johnson Space Center near Houston for analysis.

The fragment, believed to be at least 4.5 billion years old, was found by an area resident who requested anonymity and no media coverage, according to Canadian officials. The Canadian and U.S. governments, for now, are honoring the request, so few details are available.

The NASA scientist responsible for analyzing the fragment, Michael Zolensky, reached at his home in Houston Wednesday evening, apologized for the secrecy.

``I'm sorry. I can't comment,'' he said.

But a Whitehorse-based geologist who helped the person collect the fragment and ship it off said it's not surprising officials are tight-lipped.

``There's a huge scientific interest and a huge commercial interest'' in meteorites, especially this one, according to Charles F. Roots, a geologist with Geological Survey of Canada's Whitehorse office.

The fragment, buried in at least a foot of fresh snow on Tutshi Lake, was uncontaminated by contact with humans or the ground, Roots said. That makes it extremely valuable to scientists because most meteorites are discovered after they've been handled by people, hit the ground or after the snow around them melts. Those conditions make it hard to determine if the material on the meteorite came from space or Earth. In this case, scientists should have an easier time unlocking the meteorite's mysteries.

Because of the type of fireball that produced this meteorite, it could be an important scientific find, Roots said.

The fireball, which lit up the early morning sky on Jan. 18, created two sonic booms, dramatic green and yellow flashes, a dusty trail and a stinky, sulphurous aroma, according to witnesses in Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon.

That indicates to Roots that the fragment probably contains amino acids, often referred to as the building blocks of life. The chance to study those amino acids, uncontaminated, should yield valuable information about the origins of the solar system, said Roots, who described the fragment as looking ``just like a charcoal briquette.''

There is also strong financial and scientific incentive to keep the story under wraps. If a host of people descend on Tutshi Lake, they could compromise the scientific value of the debris. And if all the debris is scooped up by prospectors, the land owner stands to lose out on a cash windfall. The Internet has created a burgeoning market of meteorite dealers.

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