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In 2016, a family in Illinois thought that a meteorite had hit their backyard. They called up the geology department at nearby Wheaton College to say that whatever struck their property had started a small fire and had left a weird rock embedded in the scorched dirt.

"Meteorites, contrary to popular belief, are cold when they hit the ground," says Benjamin Hess, who was an undergraduate at the college but is now a graduate student at Yale University. "My professor readily figured out that that was probably a lightning strike."

When lightning strikes sand, soil or stone, it immediately melts the materials into a glassy clump known as a fulgurite, or lightning rock. When geologists excavated the fulgurite in Illinois, they found something unexpected inside — an important ingredient for life that had long been thought to be delivered to early Earth by meteorites.

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