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Scientists to drill into dinosaur-killing crater

An artist's depiction of an asteroid hitting Earth. NASA / D. Davis

Approximately 66 million years ago a large piece of rock came hurtling from space through our sky, slamming into Earth, causing the mass extinction event that eventually wiped out the dinosaurs. Now a team of scientists is embarking on a mission to drill into the massive crater it left behind.

READ MORE: Are we in the midst of a mass extinction?

The mighty reign of the dinosaurs came to an end after 135 million years on this planet when the asteroid hit just off the Yucatan Peninsula. The extinction event is known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event or K-T boundary, and it wiped out about 70 per cent of life on this planet.

When the object — believed to be about 15 km in diameter — hit, it created tsunamis that travelled around the globe; a super-heated cloud of dust and debris soared about 10 km high before it settled back down, creating a peak ring (the ring that remained inside the crater itself). And it’s this peak ring that scientists will be exploring later this week.

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The 180-km-wide crater went virtually unnoticed by the scientific community until about 1978. That year two geophysicists, Glen Penfield and Antonio Camargo, were working for a drilling company when they noticed the crater on geophysical maps of the area. Around the same time, a scientific paper was released theorizing that a cataclysmic event slammed into Earth around 65 million years ago, causing the K-T boundary.

Moreover, the presence of iridium — a mineral that is rare on the surface on Earth but common on asteroids — was found in the area, lending support to the theory that it was here that a large asteroid slammed into Earth resulting in the mass extinction. Since then, the theory has been widely supported.

Now geologists that include those from the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling are heading to the crater to drill about 1,500 metres deep in an effort to better understand the impact, how it occurred, how it changed our ecology and environment.

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The location of the Chicxulub Crater off the Yucatan Peninsula. ASA/JPL-Caltech, modified by David Fuchs at en.wikipedia

While there have been other expeditions that drilled down into the rock, they were conducted from land, on the peninsula itself. This will be the first that will drill offshore and into its peak ring (the ring that remained inside the crater itself).

As they drill, they will bore through various layers that will yield clues as to geological processes and ecological periods of our planet. It is like reading a history book about Earth. At 600 metres, for example, they will pass through rock from a time when temperatures across the globe spiked.

“We don’t really know what this material will look like,” Jaime Urrutia-Fucugauchi, a geophysicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City told Nature. “It could be a real surprise.”

The offshore expedition runs through April 6, with onshore work going on until June.

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