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Drilling the Chicxulub Crater of Doom

By Eric Betz
Apr 27, 2016 12:00 PMNov 19, 2019 12:26 AM


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Photo Credits: Eric Betz

A 9-mile wide (14 kilometers) asteroid struck off the coast of Mexico 66 million years ago, wiping out 75 percent of life on Earth. Scientists are currently drilling into the Chicxulub impact crater’s peak ring for the first time.

The rocks and tiny fossils they find here will reveal new details about the impact and how life rebounded in its aftermath. 

Discover associate editor Eric Betz joined the team on site in Mexico as the operation started.

Photo Credits: David Kring/Lunar and Planetary Institute

When the asteroid hit, it's estimated that it delivered over a billion times the energy of the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and displaced roughly 48,000 cubic miles of sediment.

Photo Credits: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

Mexico’s Chicxulub crater, named for a tiny town nearby, looks strikingly similar to Schrödinger crater on the moon’s far side, shown here in a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter gravity map.

The impact penetrated deep below the surface, excavating material that bounced back up and formed a ring. On Earth, these features are now underwater and buried by millions of years of sediment.

Photo Credits: Eric Betz/Discover

Liftboat Myrtle, flying the International Ocean Discovery Program flag, sits high above the rough ocean waves.

Here, it can provide a stable platform for scientists to drill nearly a mile (1,500 meters) into Earth’s crust. If the weather turns dangerous, the boat can drop back to the water and head for shore

Photo Credits: Eric Betz/Discover

A weekly supply trip delivers parts and food to the drill site 19 miles (30 kilometers) off the Yucatan coast. Once there, a small, crane-operated basket is a passenger’s only way on or off Liftboat Myrtle.

Photo Credits: Eric Betz/Discover

The drill crew works around the clock, often in more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit heat, bringing up 10-foot (3 meter) sections of core.

Without complications, it takes an hour and a half for each cylinder of rock to be drilled and lifted to the surface.

Photo Credits: Eric Betz/Discover

Scientists spring into action as each core section reaches the platform, recording temperature data, acidity levels, microbiological activity, and other information that would be lost before the cores make it back to the main laboratory.

Photo Credits: Eric Betz/Discover

Timothy Bralower of Pennsylvania State University searches for nannoplankton fossils in a tiny sample. The species he sees tells the team how far back in time they’ve drilled.

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