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Intergalactic False Alarm: Novato Meteorite is Just a Rock

After checking the object with petrographic microscope Monday, NASA astronomer concluded the magnetic rock was not from the recent meteor shower.

By Bay City News Service

After a fireball streaked across the Bay Area sky last Wednesday evening, scientists and locals alike have been on the hunt for pieces of the meteor that is believed to have made landfall in the Bay Area.

On Tuesday the meteor astronomer with the SETI Institute who reported over the weekend that the first piece of the meteor was found after it hit the roof of a Novato home clarified that the suspected meteorite discovered there was actually a natural rock.

Dr. Peter Jenniskens with the SETI Institute said on his NASA Ames Research Center webpage the house of administrative nurse at the University of California at San Francisco Lisa Webber was hit by something during the fireball's descent last Wednesday evening, but the meteorite remains elusive.

After an examination using a petrographic microscope Monday, Jenniskens was able to conclude the rock was not a meteorite.

He wrote Tuesday, "I sincerely thought it was, based on what appeared to me was remnant fusion crust. On closer inspection, that crust was a product of weathering of a natural rock, not from the heat of entry."

The 2-inch rock is 63 grams, dense and responds to a magnet, according to information from the SETI Institute, a nonprofit scientific and education organization that has projects sponsored by NASA and other foundations and research groups.

On the heels of this news, the search for the first meteorite from Wednesday's meteor continues on.

Chabot Space and Science Center astronomer Jonathan Braidman explained that last Wednesday's meteor came from a crash of two asteroids that usually wouldn't be headed for Earth.

"When there's a collision that's when you get some interesting trajectories," Braidman said.

On the NASA Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance project, cameras in Sunnyvale and at College of San Mateo captured two views of the fireball. Scientists were able to calculate a trajectory and project a fall area in the North Bay, from east of San Rafael over to Novato and beyond toward Sonoma and Napa counties.

NASA is asking the public to share any footage of the meteor that fell over the Bay Area last Wednesday at 7:44 p.m. and created sonic booms.

NASA officials said "video may help researchers study how the meteor broke during descent."

Since the fireball's descent, meteorite hunters such as Jenniskens have descended upon the North Bay where the likelihood of stumbling upon broken pieces of the meteor is higher.

For those searching in the North Bay, Braidman advised, "you might spend a lot of time searching and be disappointed."

Retired aerospace engineer Bob Verish has been in the Novato area since last week's meteor sighting when he heard about it during a different meteorite search in northern Nevada.

Verish has been doing meteorites searches for the past 12 years, and has worked with Jenniskens at other meteorite landings.

As part of Verish's hobby he created the Meteorite Recovery Lab based in Southern California. He has several hundred meteorites that he said he "self-collected" in California, Arizona and Nevada.

The search in the North Bay is in a fairly populated area, prompting Verish "to solicit the residents of Novato and Sonoma County to look to see if anything like a black rock might have landed in their yard" or even in their swimming pools.

He said the search through the area had led him to many vineyards, so he is asking workers to keep an eye out when in the fields.

After nearly a week of searching he said, "we are kind of in panic mode" before more rain compromises the potential specimens.

"We are going to be really, really aggressive here," he said.          

Longtime meteorite hunter and collector Mike Martinez has more than 560 meteorites he collected from around the world and from sites he visited including Arizona and Texas.

Martinez, the former Chabot Space and Science Center meteorite exhibition curator, said for this meteor landing he wouldn't be on the hunt for pieces as it's tedious and often fruitless work.

"I'm 66 years old, I don't want to go out," said the Lathrop, Calif. resident who said his collection is more of a hobby and side business.

Before Tuesday's admission that the fragment was not a meteorite, researchers with NASA had proposed naming the rock found the "Novato meteorite."

NASA has asked anyone to report videos or photographs of the meteor and any possible meteorite finds by emailing Petrus.M.Jenniskens@nasa.gov.

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