Scientists to drill at site of dinosaur-killing asteroid crater

New analysis of commercial drilling data gives scientists clues about what happened after a giant asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago.

Story highlights

  • Scientists say they are planning to drill into an area where a killer asteroid lies
  • New study reveals geological impact of the asteroid in the Gulf of Mexico

(CNN)Scientists plan to drill into an impact crater where the remnants of a killer asteroid lie off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

The Chicxulub crater is the spot where an asteroid stuck 66 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs and most life on the planet. Scientists hope that by drilling into the crater sediments, they may be able to learn how life here bounced back after the devastating impact.
"You can assume that at ground zero of this impact we are dealing with a sterile ocean, and over time life renewed itself. We might learn something for the future," Research Professor Sean Gulick of University of Texas Institute for Geophysics told CNN on Thursday.
A team of scientists from the University of Texas, the National University of Mexico and the International Ocean Discovery Program plan to start drilling in April. The drilling is expected is projected to take two months to complete.
"We have some hypothesis of what we will find," Gulick said. "We expect to see a period of no life initially, and then life returning and getting more diverse through time."
    The drilling endeavor follows after new analysis of released commercial drilling data was published, showing how a 6-mile-wide asteroid impact changed the physiology of the Gulf of Mexico. The asteroid displaced 48,000 cubic miles of sediment, enough material to fill nearly 17 Lake Superiors.
    The impact caused earthquakes that loosened the sediment, and tsunamis that brought debris from places like Texas and Florida, dumping hundreds of feet of debris into the Gulf, according to scientists. This movement of sediment stretched hundreds of miles, covering Yucatan and the Caribbean Basin with rocks, sand, gravel, even boulders, according to findings published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth on February 5.
    The Chicxulub impact was incredibly powerful. Scientists believe it may have been a billion times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. On impact, the asteroid triggered a domino effect of natural disasters and coverexd the planet with a thick blanket of dust and sediment. A popular theory is that the debris, powerful tsunamis and massive earthquakes from the Chicxulub impact killed off some of the biggest beasts to ever roam our planet, giant dinosaurs and large marine reptiles.
    This debris, called the Cretaceous Paleogene boundary, can be found globally. It's important because it marks a point in Earth's time line when massive extinction happened. Scientists have been studying this debris around the world, but were never able to gain access to the Gulf of Mexico because of the commercial drilling going on in the region.
    Scientist learned that the massive deposit of sediment was laid down in a matter of days or weeks, lead author Jason Sanford and exploration geologist for Chevron who was formerly at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics told CNN. Before the impact, the Gulf of Mexico was bigger, according to Sanford.
    Asteroid impacts predominately change the surface of other planets, Gulick said. "Certain events can have lasting effects on our planets morphology, stratigraphic layers, and, of course, life," he said.
    Understanding what happened during the Chicxulub impact can help researchers predict what may happen in the future if another massive asteroid collides with our planet.
    "We pretty much knew what would happen if another asteroid of this size hit us today -- it would not be good -- but our work contributes to a larger body of work dedicated to understanding the many geologic and ecologic processes that happen when such large-magnitude events occur," Sanford said.
    Currently, NASA has a team of scientists who are hunting down potentially deadly asteroids. More than 12,000 "near earth objects" have been discovered and about 1,500 might cross Earth's path and are potentially hazardous, according to Jason Kessler, NASA's director of the Grand Challenge who spoke to CNN in June 2015.
    Fortunately, the data suggest that nothing is threatening Earth right now and we may be a little closer to understanding the future of our planet when it comes to potential asteroid collisions.