Scientists are set to conduct a drilling expedition at the impact crater — Chicxulub crater — generated by a dinosaur-killing asteroid.
The team hopes to obtain rock cores that will give information about how life was restored after the widespread destructive event that occurred millions of years ago. Specifically, they want to discover if the actual crater harbored microbial life.
Drilling the crater may also pave the way for more information about how the so-called powerful "peak rings" formed.
A Look Back
Chicxulub crater is believed to be the impact site where an asteroid crashed into the Earth 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaur population.
In the 1950s, a Mexico-based oil company called Pemex, performed gravity and magnetic experiments at the Yucatán Peninsula. The researchers were surprised to find circular structures below the ground, which may potentially be oil traps.
They then drilled wells, but halted the mission after obtaining volcanic rocks rather than oil-rich sediments.
Fast forward to 1980, Luis Alvarez, a Nobel laureate and some of his colleagues brought up the presence of a thin layer of iridium in ancient rocks dating back to the time of dinosaurs. Iridium is a chemical element that scientists consider as a potential component of an asteroid. Most importantly, the scientists regard the discovery as a sign of a great impact, which is a significant indicator of formerly unsuspected cause of extinctions.
In 1991, geologist Alan Hildebrand and colleagues dubbed the Chicxulub village as the site of natural destruction. They found quartz crystals appalled by the impact via the samples collated by Pemex.
Because the said samples have been idle for the more than 10 years from that discovery, some people were a bit embarrassed, said Hildebrand.
Hopes For This Mission
Because the information from Pemex was irregular, experts have been eyeing on going back to the site to obtain more detailed data from the impact and the aftermath.
The scientists have so much hope for the upcoming mission. Once they have drilled 800 meters down the crater, they expect to find lesser samples of the shell-producing species that compose the limestone because life was still in the stages of recovery.
Other scientists think that the carbon dioxide caused by the impact may have lowered down the pH of oceans, making it acidic. With this, they are also looking at investigating if the animals at the seafloor level were those that endured low pH.
Slightly on top of the crater is an impact sheet that is 100 meters or more thick. Such layer may have been accumulated after the natural destruction. At the bottom part of this sheet, scientist anticipate to discover a mixture of rocks destroyed by the impact and some previously-molten rocks that returned back to the crater just minutes after the impact.
Ultimately, the highlight of the mission would be to reach the peak ring that exists abundantly on Mars, Mercury and the moon.
On Earth, however, there are just two craters bigger than Chicxulub that should also contain peak rings. These are Vredefort crater in South Africa and Sudbury crater in Canada, which are two billion and 1.8 billion years old respectively. However, these craters are so old that the peak rings may have already disintegrated.
The forthcoming drilling expedition will commence during the latter part of March. A special vessel will sail from Progreso port in Mexico up to an area 30 kilometers offshore.
The boat will then sink three pylons 17 meters deep in the water and raise itself atop the waves, producing a sturdy platform.
The team plans to drill starting April 1 and rapidly beat through 500 meters of limestone found on the sea floor accumulated from the impact.
Once through, the team would obtain core specimens three meters after three meters. They will persist to attempt going deeper by a kilometer, day and night, to look for diversification in rock types, classify microfossils and obtain DNA samples.
"We've got one shot to try and get this down to 1500 meters," says David Smith from the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), which will sponsor the $10 million mission.