Sixty-six million years ago, planet Earth had a bad day when a 10km-wide asteroid smashed into the Yucatán Peninsula, triggering a series of events that killed off the dinosaurs. Later this month, a scientific expedition will drill into the heart of Chicxulub crater for the very first time, seeking to learn more about the nature of that disaster. The buried remains of the asteroid that released a billion Hiroshima bombs' worth of energy and precipitated a mass extinction event have eluded scientific analysis for decades — in part because the region has long been locked down by the oil industry. But last year, a University of Texas at Austin-based team was awarded $US10 million for an offshore drilling plan that will drive a diamond-tipped drill bit 1500m beneath the seafloor, cutting clean through Chicxulub crater to retrieve samples. Later this month, the expedition will finally set sail.
Gravity anomaly map of the Chixculub crater impact area. Image Credit: Wikimedia
As Science News explains, the team is planning to drill Chixculub's "peak ring", a region of elevated rocks encircling the centre of all large impact craters. Scientists still aren't sure why peak rings form or what they're made of — questions the upcoming drilling expedition hopes to answer.
More exciting still are the open questions about what happened to life on Earth when a giant space rock smacked into our planet's surface. To this day, scientists aren't sure whether the Chixculub impact per se, or other geologic forces, sounded the dinosaurs' death knell. One recent scientific paper argues that energy delivered to Earth's crust during the impact ignited volcanoes worldwide, turning our atmosphere into a noxious mess for half a million years. Others cite debris from post-impact earthquakes and tsunamis as the immediate cause of death.
Geologic samples recovered during drilling could help us piece together this violent chapter in Earth's history. They will also offer insights into how life rebounded after the apocalypse. The team plans to study living microorganisms found in rock fractures inside the peak ring that are descendants of the tiny critters that colonised ground zero after the impact. It's possible that this death shrine gave rise to incredible new forms of life.
We'll have some answers soon — the drilling operation is scheduled to start by April 1.
Top Image Credit: NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center / Flickr