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Scientists to Drill Chicxulub Crater for Clues to Mass Extinction Event

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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. 

[h/t Science]

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Courtesy of Gem Diamonds Ltd.
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Fifth Largest Diamond in The World Discovered in Southern Africa
Courtesy of Gem Diamonds Ltd.
Courtesy of Gem Diamonds Ltd.

The Letšeng diamond mine in the southern African nation of Lesotho is known for producing large, high-quality gems. As Bloomberg reports, a massive diamond uncovered there recently is the mine's most impressive yet. The 910-carat stone is roughly the size of two golf balls and weighs more than a billiard ball.

The diamond is thought to be the fifth largest ever discovered on Earth. Gem Diamonds Ltd., the company behind the discovery, said in a statement [PDF] that the "exceptional top quality diamond is the largest to be mined to date and highlights the unsurpassed quality of the Letšeng mine."

Beyond its size, the diamond is also remarkable for its purity. The D color Type IIa status means there are little to no nitrogen atoms muddying its color. Though Gem Diamonds hasn't revealed their price, the diamond is likely worth a huge amount: up to $40 million, analyst Ben Davis tells Bloomberg.

That's a steep price, but it's nowhere near the highest ever paid for a diamond at auction. Rare colored diamonds tend to fetch the highest bids: In 2015, the Blue Moon diamond sold for $48.5 million, and in 2017 the Pink Star was auctioned off for $71.2 million, making it the most expensive diamond of all time.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Space
Mysterious 'Hypatia Stone' Is Like Nothing Else in Our Solar System
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In 1996, Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat discovered a tiny, one-ounce stone in the eastern Sahara. Ever since, scientists have been trying to figure out where exactly the mysterious pebble originated. As Popular Mechanics reports, it probably wasn't anywhere near Earth. A new study in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta finds that the micro-compounds in the rock don't match anything we've ever found in our solar system.

Scientists have known for several years that the fragment, known as the Hypatia stone, was extraterrestrial in origin. But this new study finds that it's even weirder than we thought. Led by University of Johannesburg geologists, the research team performed mineral analyses on the microdiamond-studded rock that showed that it is made of matter that predates the existence of our Sun or any of the planets in the solar system. And, its chemical composition doesn't resemble anything we've found on Earth or in comets or meteorites we have studied.

Lead researcher Jan Kramers told Popular Mechanics that the rock was likely created in the early solar nebula, a giant cloud of homogenous interstellar dust from which the Sun and its planets formed. While some of the basic materials in the pebble are found on Earth—carbon, aluminum, iron, silicon—they exist in wildly different ratios than materials we've seen before. Researchers believe the rock's microscopic diamonds were created by the shock of the impact with Earth's atmosphere or crust.

"When Hypatia was first found to be extraterrestrial, it was a sensation, but these latest results are opening up even bigger questions about its origins," as study co-author Marco Andreoli said in a press release.

The study suggests the early solar nebula may not have been as homogenous as we thought. "If Hypatia itself is not presolar, [some of its chemical] features indicate that the solar nebula wasn't the same kind of dust everywhere—which starts tugging at the generally accepted view of the formation of our solar system," Kramer said.

The researchers plan to further probe the rock's origins, hopefully solving some of the puzzles this study has presented.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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