Rock Samples From Impact Crater Reveal Details of Dinosaur Extinction


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About 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs and countless other creatures were going about their business on Earth when a space rock dropped out of the sky and brought about the end of the Cretaceous Period. But what was that fateful day like? We have a better idea today thanks to the International Ocean Discovery Program, which collected a pristine sample from the impact site. 

The asteroid struck near the present-day Yucatan Peninsula, producing the Chixculub crater. Most of the crater sits under the Gulf of Mexico, so that’s where the researchers collected their samples more than 1,600 feet below the seafloor. The rock cores taken from the crater paint a bleak but fascinating picture of that day 65 million years ago. 

The object was probably no more than a few miles wide, which isn’t much compared with a planet. However, its high relative velocity caused a devastating release of energy. At the time of the impact, the region was a shallow sea, probably no more than 100 feet deep. The impact produced a tsunami more than a thousand feet tall, and at the same time gouged a massive crater of melted, deformed rock known as shocked rock. 

Based on the core samples (see below), the team estimates the impactor hit with the force of 10 billion Hiroshima atomic bombs. The blast ignited trees thousands of miles away, and the tsunami reached as far inland as present-day Illinois. The water flowed back into the crater several hours later, bringing with it soil and materials like charred trees picked up from the surrounding land.

The team was perhaps most interested by what wasn’t present in the samples: sulfur-rich rocks. The geological area around the crater has large deposits of sulfur, suggesting that the impact vaporized sulfur-bearing minerals and released the sulfur into the atmosphere. The team estimates that 325 billion metric tons of sulfur ended up in the atmosphere after the impact, which is orders of magnitude higher than what escaped during the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic eruption. That event lowered global temperatures by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The sudden high concentration of sulfur resulted in massive temperature drops across the globe, ensuring almost all dinosaurs perished. The only survivors among the dinosaurs were avian species, which eventually became modern-day birds. More research on the sample could reveal even more details about this tumultuous period in Earth’s history.

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Curiosity Spots Unexpectedly Complex Martian Rock


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NASA’s Curiosity rover has seen a lot of rocks. In fact, that’s almost all it sees on the surface of Mars. Recently, the rover spotted a rock so strange that the team decided to move in for a closer look. The so-called “Strathdon” has dozens of sedimentary layers squished together, a geological quirk scientists didn’t expect to see on Mars. This points to a potentially complicated and watery past in the region explored by Curiosity. 

Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, setting up shop in Gale Crater. Its goal was to make its way to nearby Mount Sharp and roll up the slope, examining the geology on the way. It reached the base of the mountain in 2014. The team has made numerous pit stops along the way to the summit in order to take a closer look at interesting regions. Currently, the rover is puttering around in an area called the “clay-bearing unit.” In the distant past, it was most likely home to streams and lakes, the only remnants of which are clay mineral deposits. 

While exploring the clay-bearing unit, Curiosity happened upon a strange boulder partially buried in the ground — the Strathdon. The rock formed from many layers of compressed sediment that had hardened into a brittle, wavy mass. It’s a stark contrast from the flat layers of lake sediment Curiosity has seen elsewhere on Mars. 

Strathdon as seen from 4 inches away.

Curiosity approached the Strathdon, taking a close-up mosaic image for scientists back on Earth to examine. The team speculates that the structure of this boulder means the clay-bearing unit has a much more complex and dynamic geological history than anyone expected. A combination of flowing water and wind could be responsible for the existence of this formation. This region might have been quite hospitable to life many eons ago, but Curiosity can’t say for certain — that’s for the next rover to find out. 

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is being assembled at JPL as we speak. It has a robotic arm, wheels, and some of its many, many cameras. The still-unnamed rover uses the same chassis as Curiosity, but it will carry instruments that are better able to search for signs of ancient life on the red planet. The launch is scheduled for next summer when Earth and Mars are lined up for an easy journey. Mars 2020 will join Curiosity on the surface in February 2021.

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