Sixty-six million years ago, a giant asteroid slammed into Earth near what is now Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The impact was so powerful that it likely killed off the dinosaurs and most of Earth's other organisms. Now, Science reports that researchers plan to drill into the heart of the giant Chicxulub crater, a 110-mile-wide, 12-mile-deep impression that researchers believe resulted from the collision. They hope the sediment will yield clues as to how life returned to our planet, and potentially reveal whether the crater served as a home for new microbial life forms.
“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," Sean Gulick, a research professor from the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, told CNN. Gulick is co–chief of the project, which is sponsored by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.
Scientists still haven’t proved whether the six-mile-wide asteroid that caused the Chicxulub impact crater—now buried beneath the peninsula—is responsible for Earth’s mass extinction, although it’s a widely accepted theory. However, the crater itself is geologically important. According to the Christian Science Monitor, one of its distinguishing characteristics is its “peak rings”—rocky ridges that were formed from the meteor impact. These formations could provide new geological and environmental evidence about life after the collision. Since Chicxulub is the only remaining formation on Earth with an intact peak ring, it’s an invaluable resource for scientists.
At the end of the month, researchers from the University of Texas, the National University of Mexico, and the International Ocean Discovery Program will travel to the Mexican town of Chicxulub. There, they will sail to an offshore location above a peak ring and use pylons to raise the watercraft above the waves, transforming it into a drilling platform. They’ll use a diamond-tipped bit to drill down through 500 meters of limestone deposited on the ocean floor since the impact, Science reports, and then continue another kilometer down through the peak ring to extract core rock samples. Scientists will later analyze them to learn more about peak ring structure and the genetics of the life forms that might live in them. The entire project is expected to take two months.
While scientists don’t think that another catastrophic collision will happen in our lifetime, it’s still important to know what happens to the Earth when they strike. “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,” geologist Jason Sanford told CNN.