There's a new rush on in California's gold rush country. This time, they're prospecting for meteorites.
A minivan-sized meteor blew up over northern California on Sunday morning, and now everyone from NASA scientists to schoolkids is looking for fragments of the fireball – called meteorites once they hit the ground – in the Sierra Nevada towns of Coloma and Lotus.
“People used to pull the gold out of the ground. Now, things fall out of the sky,” NASA research astrophysicist Scott Sandford told CNN affiliate KTXL in Sacramento. “Lucky place, I guess.”
The site where the first meteorites were found Wednesday is just a mile from where gold was first found at Sutter's Mill in Coloma in 1848, CNN affiliate KXTV reported.
Meteorite hunter Robert Ward rushed from his home in Prescott, Arizona, to northern California after hearing of the explosion on Sunday and found fragments in a park. He told CNN affiliate KOVR that these fragments are the first of their kind to fall to Earth since the 1960s.
And they are of extreme importance to scientists, he said.
"There's particles inside this meteorite that predate our sun," Ward said.
"It contains complex amino acids. It contains organic molecules. This thing is just a treasure trove of data for scientists," Ward told KXTV.
NASA scientist Peter Jenniskens found fragments in the park's parking lot, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report. The fragment had been split into smaller pieces after it was run over by a vehicle, he told the Chronicle.
"We need to find more fragments so we can begin to understand how it broke apart and what was inside it," the Chronicle quoted Jenniskens as saying.
"A primitive type of meteorite can tell us an awful lot about the early stages of our solar system, so it is scientific gold in that respect," Sandford told KXTV.
And now that matter from the early universe is scattered over the California landscape.
Local elementary school students Alvin Wolf and Dustin Bunge were among those combing Henningsen Lotus Park on Wednesday.
"We'd probably sell it. Keep it in a bag and if NASA wanted to do stuff on it," they told KXTV.
NASA scientists are organizing a meteorite search for Saturday in Henningsen Lotus Park, KXTL reports.
In the meantime, Ward and others will keep searching.
"There's pieces out there in people's backyards," Ward said. "They just have to get out there and find them."
"It's like a giant easter egg hunt for adults," Randy Freeman of Garden Valley, California, told KXTV.