Scientists Drilling Asteroid Crater – Will Dinosaur Extinction Mystery Finally Be Unraveled?

The extinction of the dinosaurs is one of Earth’s most enduring mysteries; now, that mystery may soon be unraveled. About 65 million years ago, an asteroid struck the Yucatán Peninsula, carving a massive crater into the Earth’s surface, and an international team of scientists is spending $10 million to drill deep into its center.

The drilling project is expected to happen next year; it will be the first time researchers have taken a sample from the crater itself, LiveScience reported.

Named Chicxulub after for a nearby village, the 125-mile wide crater was caused by a nine-mile wide asteroid; the impact set off forest fires and shot so much debris into the atmosphere it blotted out the sun, Tech Times explained. This is what wiped out the dinosaurs – and most other living things. It’s the only known crater linked to such a devastating extinction.

In the upper left portion of the peninsula, a faint arc of dark green is visible indicating the remnants of the Chicxulub impact crater.

Tragic though it was for dinosaurs, the event left only birds in its wake and allowed small mammals to get a toehold; humans came next.

Scientists will drill along its peak ring, which is essentially a circle of structures – similar to mountains – in the center of the crater. And why this peak ring is there takes a bit of explaining: When a big rock, like an asteroid, hits the planet, the impact is similar to a rock hitting water. If the rock is going fast enough, when it finally makes contact the Earth’s surface acts – for just a brief moment – like a liquid. What forms first is called a “transient crater” in the center; this then splashes up and out.

Researchers think the peak ring is the remnant of that “rebounded and splashed outward” effect that occurred when the asteroid hit. The material in this part of the crater may provide a unique window into the asteroid strike, the moment dinosaurs were wiped from the planet and what happened afterward.

“The Chicxulub impact crater has been a remarkable scientific opportunity for the 20 years since it’s been discovered,” one researcher, Sean Gulick, told LiveScience. The chance to drill has finally arrived thanks to some encouraging subsurface images of its offshore section, which focused the site scientists will target.

The drill will probe the crater to a depth of 5,000 feet; Tech Times estimated the procedure would take two months. The giant core that results will be halved in Germany; an international team of researchers will examine one half while the other will head to Texas A&M for more study.

The potential to solve the mystery of dinosaur extinction – and what came after – is tantalizing.

[Photos Courtesy Dan Kitwood and NASA/Getty Images]