A group of international scientists has just finished collecting samples from the crater formed by the asteroid that is widely blamed for the extinction of the dinosaurs. The project, they believe, could help explain how life on earth recovered after the shock and, perhaps, even the origin of life itself.
The group collected the samples over two months from a small platform off the coast of southern Mexico, where the asteroid hit about 66 million years ago.
"There's a lot of interest in knowing what happened," said Dr. Jaime Fucugauchi, the Mexican scientific coordinator of the mission. "This marked one of the most critical events for Earth's evolution."
Fucugauchi added that the team is particularly interested in exploring how life recovered in the impact area, known as the Chicxulub crater, which was first identified in 1980.
Scientists believe that it all might have happened inside the crater's peak-ring. Peak rings are particular topographic structures formed after major impacts into rock. They are common on Mars and on the Moon, but Chicxulub is the only place they are known to be well preserved on Earth.
The hypothesis goes that highly porous peak-rings could turn into a hotbed for life when they are filled with heated water.
"Peak-rings could be ideal places to search for life on other planets," said geophysicist Auriol Rae, who was responsible for taking a first look at the rock cylinders raised to the platform. "Understanding the only preserved peak-ring on Earth could be highly important."
Up until now, the 124 mile diameter Chicxulub crater has been most famous for the role it reputedly played in the story of how dinosaurs disappeared from the world. The theory goes that the debris sent shooting upwards when the crater was formed combined with gasses being spewed out by erupting volcanos. This created a cloud that blocked out sunlight for a long time and, it appears, triggered the terminal decline of three quarters of the species on Earth.
As well as grand theories about how life regenerated, some members of the team are also hoping that the samples will increase their knowledge about the way peak-rings are formed.
Rae, who is an impact petrologist, said that current understanding likens the formation of these structures to a water splash seen in slow motion so that the place of impact can be witnessed first rising and then collapsing outwards. But, he added, scientists are struggling to answer the question of how rocks could behave in this way.
Drilling began in early April with a goal of perforating 5,000 feet below the sea and into the Earth's crust during a two-month period. Funds ended one week before planned and the team had to stop drilling at 4,380 feet. The team has now sent the samples to Texas for scanning and processing into 3D models. They are due to begin full-scale physical analysis of the bits of rock this September in Bremen, Germany.
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