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ANCHORAGE - The meteorite that blew apart over a frozen lake in northern British Columbia last month was an extremely rare, carbon-rich type that offers a ``golden opportunity'' to learn about the origins of life, according to NASA officials.
The meteorite is packed with star dust older than the sun, said Michael Zolensky, cosmic mineralogist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This scientific gem is called a carbonaceous chondrite, containing water, amino acids, hydrocarbon, gases and diamonds.
``This type of meteorite falls maybe once in a generation,'' Zolensky said.
Scientists expect the meteorite will teach them more about how the planets and the sun were formed, he said. Of all the meteorites that strike Earth, only about 2 percent are carbonaceous chondrites, which scientists think are born from asteroids.
But this one is even more valuable to scientists for another reason.
Two egg-sized chucks of the meteorite being studied at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, are in near-perfect condition, according to Zolensky, who's heading the research.
It's the first time NASA has ever received such samples uncontaminated, said Zolensky. Usually they reach the lab after being handled by people, thawed out or otherwise soiled, compromising their value.
An unidentified man who lives near Carcross, Yukon Territory, found the charcoallike fragments, sealed them cleanly in plastic bags and kept them frozen.
With the help of a Whitehorse geologist, he shipped them to the U.S. space agency about a week after the meteorite exploded.
The fireball jolted people out of their beds in Carcross before sunrise on Jan. 18 and produced a dramatic light show visible as far south as Juneau. The explosion left a trail of vapor and smoke that lingered for at least 45 minutes.
The Canadian meteorite is the largest extraterrestrial body to enter Earth's atmosphere in the last two years, said Charles F. Roots, a geologist with Geological Survey of Canada. It exploded 12 miles above Tutshi Lake along the Klondike Highway, which connects Skagway and Whitehorse.
Tests on the meteorite will continue for decades, Zolensky said. The last two carbonaceous chondrites that fell to the Earth, in 1969 in Mexico and Australia, are still being studied.
NASA hopes to get its hands on more of the fragments, but it better hurry. The space rocks will sink into the lake during spring thaw, Roots said, making recovery and identification difficult. Or meteorite hunters may snap them up first.