Sixty-six million years ago, a six-mile-wide asteroid slammed into what is now Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, triggering a series of events that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Now, a team of scientists based at the University of Texas at Austin is gearing up to drill a diamond-tipped bit into the heart of the impact crater, hoping to find clues about how life on Earth came back after the cataclysmic event.
Located near the town of Chicxulub, after which the crater is named, the “ground zero” site of the dino-killing asteroid’s impact is one of the largest such sites on earth, at over 110 miles (180 kilometers) in diameter and 12 miles (20 kilometers) in depth.
The buried remains of the asteroid, which, according to Live Science, “released as much energy as 100 trillion tons of TNT, more than a billion times more than the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” has evaded deep scientific study for decades due to the site’s use by the lucrative oil industry in the Yucatán. In fact, the Chicxulub crater was first discovered by geophysicists scouting for petroleum in 1978.
This will mark the first time that a scientific expedition has been able to drill for samples. The $10 million project will begin later this month, according to Science News.
Dinosaurs lived on earth for a staggering 135 million years before their age came to a dramatic end in what is widely accepted to have begun with the Chicxulub asteroid impact and ended with the end-Cretaceous or Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, otherwise known as the subsequent mass extinction of most of the life on earth.
Scientists hope to use the diamond-tipped but to drill 5,000 feet below the seafloor, cutting into the Chicxulub crater’s “peak ring,” or a ridge of elevated rock peaks circling the center of all large impact craters. No one is quite sure how or why these “peak rings” form. The team hopes to answer these questions and many more on the upcoming drilling expedition, where they will study the retrieved rock cores to find out whether the peak ring of the crater itself could have been a home for microbial life.
“Chicxulub is the only preserved structure with an intact peak ring that we can get to,” said geophysicist Sean Gulick from the University of Texas, Austin, co–chief scientist of the project to Science News. “All the other ones are either on another planet, or they’ve been eroded.”
Studying geologic samples from the impact site will allow researchers to discover more about the nature of the disaster and the origins of life on our planet. Science News explains how the team sees this first offshore attempt to drill into the Chicxulub crater unfolding.
“At the end of March, a specially equipped vessel will sail from the Mexican port of Progreso to a point 30 kilometers offshore. There, in water 17 meters deep, the boat will sink three pylons and raise itself above the waves, creating a stable platform. By 1 April, the team plans to start drilling, quickly churning through 500 meters of limestone that were deposited on the sea floor since the impact. After that, the drillers will extract core samples, in 3-meter-long increments, as they go deeper. For 2 months, they will work day and night in an attempt to go down another kilometer, looking for changes in rock types, cataloging microfossils, and collecting DNA samples.”
By studying the living microorganisms found in the rock samples within the peak ring, ones that are the descendants of the tiny lifeforms that rebounded after the apocalyptic asteroid impact, we will get the most detailed look at this important time in earth’s history to date.
“It seems like a lifetime’s ambition coming true,” co–chief scientist Joanna Morgan of Imperial College London said to Science News.
The expedition is sponsored by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program. The drilling is expected to start April 1.
[Photo by NASA/Getty Images]