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The Fireball That Killed the Dinosaurs Could Help Us Find Life on Other Planets

When David Kring of the University of Arizona gave a presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in 1991, he didn’t expect a packed crowd for his talk on the petrology of the Chicxulub Structure in the Yucatan, Mexico. Normally, Kring knew, impact-cratering sessions were presented in the smallest room—the miserable Room D, a shoebox on the second floor. But the magnitude of his announcement attracted scientists across fields and disciplines, so he was bumped up to the main room.

Kring had been investigating a place called the Yucatán-6 borehole, and he and his team had discovered shock quartz and impact melt fragments in two thumb-sized bits of rock that were over half a mile beneath the surface of the Earth. This was evidence that the hole, thought for a very long time to be a volcanic center, was actually an impact structure. And not just any “impact structure,” and not just any crater―but the crater of all craters on Earth. The one behind the death of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Last year, Kring was part of an expedition in which scientists drilled into Chicxulub to investigate how the disastrous collision of fireball and Earth that killed the dinosaurs also created the conditions for life to begin anew. Last month, Kring and his colleagues returned to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference to present their findings from the new core samples they took on that expedition. The results provide new clues about how life may have begun on Earth about 4 billion years ago—and point us towards how and where we can look for life across the universe.

THE SMOKING CANNON

Back in the early 1990s, Kring knew what he was looking for—a crater of the size and magnitude that would provide evidence of catastrophic extinction—but he didn’t know where to look. “It was a race to find the impact site,” Kring tells mental_floss, “and we had made a discovery of this very thick impact ejecta deposit in Haiti, which pointed us to [the Yucatan].”

Impact ejecta is what’s blasted from the Earth or other body when a meteor crashes into it. In this case, a giant chunk of the Earth was blown a thousand miles away. Until the Haiti discovery, people were looking all over the planet for the crater. But now they had a target region. Meanwhile, Petroleos Mexicanos, an oil company, had drilled down into what they thought was a “geophysical anomaly” in the Yucatan―a salt dome, maybe, where there might be oil. That’s when Kring and his colleagues re-examined samples collected from the site and realized there were features consistent with an impact.

That the Yucatan site was still intact to be found wasn’t a given. In the last 65 million years, half of the seafloor has been subducted, where one tectonic plate slides beneath another—which would have prevented scientists from discovering samples. When Kring and his team looked at the samples they were able to take, there was shock quartz in one of the layers. “The minute you see shock quartz, that is absolutely, categorically diagnostic of impact,” says Kring. “You know that’s not a buried volcano. It’s an impact crater, and that’s your eureka moment.”

When Kring found the Chicxulub Crater, it finally provided scientific evidence for the Impact Mass Extinction Hypothesis. Developed by physicist Luis Alvarez, the theory proposes that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by a catastrophic asteroid impact with the Earth. The theory made a lot of sense. An impact of such magnitude would certainly leave a mark, after all. The dominant alternative hypothesis was that overdrive volcanic activity caused catastrophic climate change, leaving the dinosaurs in a bad spot. Finding an impact crater of this magnitude, scientist Gene Shoemaker would later tell Time magazine, was “the smoking cannon.”

The discovery that impact cratering is not only a geological process but a biological one caused a major shift in scientific thinking during the 20th century. The idea that you could have catastrophic events completely change the evolutionary path of the planet was staggering in its implication. Impact Mass Extinction Hypothesis, and the subsequent discovery of Chicxulub Crater, were argued by some as fundamentally more important, and bigger shifts in the tenets of geology, than learning about continental drift.

THE ORIGIN OF LIFE ON EARTH

When a fireball hit the Earth 66 million years ago, the Mesozoic Era (the Age of Reptiles) ended and the Cenozoic―the Age of Mammals―began. One second before the strike, in the part of the sea that must have had a dark shadow pooling rapidly outward as the asteroid approached, 50-foot sea monsters called mosasaurs swarmed and devoured fish and mollusks. One second after the asteroid hit, those mosasaurs were gone, and chunks of the planet were blown thousands of miles in every direction. Every continent on Earth was devastated in the blink of a geologic eye. A 300-foot tsunami washed across North and South America. The Sun was blotted out. Plants relying on photosynthesis declined or went extinct. If you were a dinosaur who couldn’t fly, you were done for. Seventy-five percent of all species of life were obliterated.

But bad as that sounds, approximately 4 billion years ago, an impact likely larger even than Chicxulub would have vaporized the sea and created a rock vapor atmosphere for thousands of years. The impacts would have produced vast subsurface hydrothermal (hot water) systems that were perfect crucibles for prebiotic chemistry. The new core samples taken from deep in Chicxulub provide physical evidence of this theory. The samples are fractured and permeable—perfect for the circulation of hot fluid. Moreover, they also have signatures of hot fluids and altered rock and hydrothermal minerals.

The hydrothermal systems caused by an asteroid collision may have lasted for as long as 2.3 million years. This is critical, because life needs time to establish itself and evolve. Those systems would have evolved into perfect habitats for the evolution of life.

Kring's Chicxulub research suggests that these are the types of places life evolved in early Earth history. Further research will look at the analysis of rock samples for radiometric signatures, to try to determine how long that system persisted. It's also given rise to a new theory: the Impact Origin of Life Hypothesis.

This impact origin of life theory is not necessarily limited to Earth, as research from Susanne Schwenzer, Oleg Abramov, and others suggest. “It is generically translatable,” says Kring. “Impact cratering, as it turns out, is an important heat engine for planetary bodies. Impact events on icy satellites can melt icy shells and produce seeds. You need liquid water for life. That may have had a role of life in our outer system.” This also applies to extrasolar planetary systems.

Whether life originated anywhere beyond Earth is still to be determined, but this is a big step toward understanding what conditions to look for. You can be sure when it’s announced, that scientist will certainly play to a standing-room-only crowd yet again.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Space
Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor Gets Its Closeup—And a Name
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NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid.

'Oumuamua moved too quickly through space to orbit the Sun, which led researchers to believe that it might be the remains of a former exoplanet. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our solar system. Far-flung origins aside, new observations have led some researchers to conclude that 'Oumuamua is, well, pretty ordinary—at least in appearance.

'Oumuamua's size (591 feet by 98 feet) and oblong shape have drawn comparisons to a chunky cigar that's half a city block long. It's also reddish in color, and looks and acts like asteroids in our own solar system, the BBC reports. Its average looks aside, 'Oumuamua remains important because it may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form.

University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF
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NASA/JPL
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Space
8 Useful Facts About Uranus
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Uranus as seen by the human eye (left) and with colored filters (right).
NASA/JPL

The first planet to be discovered by telescope, Uranus is the nearest of the two "ice giants" in the solar system. Because we've not visited in over 30 years, much of the planet and its inner workings remain unknown. What scientists do know, however, suggests a mind-blowing world of diamond rain and mysterious moons. Here is what you need to know about Uranus.

1. ITS MOONS ARE NAMED AFTER CHARACTERS FROM LITERATURE.

Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun, the fourth largest by size, and ranks seventh by density. (Saturn wins as least-dense.) It has 27 known moons, each named for characters from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. It is about 1784 million miles from the Sun (we're 93 million miles away from the Sun, or 1 astronomical unit), and is four times wider than Earth. Planning a trip? Bring a jacket, as the effective temperature of its upper atmosphere is -357°F. One Uranian year last 84 Earth years, which seems pretty long, until you consider one Uranian day, which lasts 42 Earth years. Why?

2. IT ROTATES UNIQUELY.

Most planets, as they orbit the Sun, rotate upright, spinning like tops—some faster, some slower, but top-spinning all the same. Not Uranus! As it circles the Sun, its motion is more like a ball rolling along its orbit. This means that for each hemisphere of the planet to go from day to night, you need to complete half an orbit: 42 Earth years. (Note that this is not the length of a complete rotation, which takes about 17.25 hours.) While nobody knows for sure what caused this 98-degree tilt, the prevailing hypothesis involves a major planetary collision early in its history. And unlike Earth (but like Venus!), it rotates east to west.

3. SO ABOUT THAT NAME …

You might have noticed that every non-Earth planet in the solar system is named for a Roman deity. (Earth didn't make the cut because when it was named, nobody knew it was a planet. It was just … everything.) There is an exception to the Roman-god rule: Uranus. Moving outward from Earth, Mars is (sometimes) the son of Jupiter, and Jupiter is the son of Saturn. So who is Saturn's father? Good question! In Greek mythology, it is Ouranos, who has no precise equivalent in Roman mythology (Caelus is close), though his name was on occasion Latinized by poets as—you guessed it!—Uranus. So to keep things nice and tidy, Uranus it was when finally naming this newly discovered world. Little did astronomers realize how greatly they would disrupt science classrooms evermore.

Incidentally, it is not pronounced "your anus," but rather, "urine us" … which is hardly an improvement.

4. IT IS ONE OF ONLY TWO ICE GIANTS.

Uranus and Neptune comprise the solar system's ice giants. (Other classes of planets include the terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the dwarf planets.) Ice giants are not giant chunks of ice in space. Rather, the name refers to their formation in the interstellar medium. Hydrogen and helium, which only exist as gases in interstellar space, formed planets like Jupiter and Saturn. Silicates and irons, meanwhile, formed places like Earth. In the interstellar medium, molecules like water, methane, and ammonia comprise an in-between state, able to exist as gases or ices depending on the local conditions. When those molecules were found by Voyager to have an extensive presence in Uranus and Neptune, scientists called them "ice giants."

5. IT'S A HOT MYSTERY.

Planets form hot. A small planet can cool off and radiate away heat over the age of the solar system. A large planet cannot. It hasn't cooled enough entirely on the inside after formation, and thus radiates heat. Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune all give off significantly more heat than they receive from the Sun. Puzzlingly, Uranus is different.

"Uranus is the only giant planet that is not giving off significantly more heat than it is receiving from the Sun, and we don't know why that is," says Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He tells Mental Floss that Uranus and Neptune are thought to be similar in terms of where and how they formed.

So why is Uranus the only planet not giving off heat? "The big question is whether that heat is trapped on the inside, and so the interior is much hotter than we expect, right now," Hofstadter says. "Or did something happen in its history that let all the internal heat get released much more quickly than expected?"

The planet's extreme tilt might be related. If it were caused by an impact event, it is possible that the collision overturned the innards of the planet and helped it cool more rapidly. "The bottom line," says Hofstadter, "is that we don't know."

6. IT RAINS DIAMONDS BIGGER THAN GRIZZLY BEARS.

Although it's really cold in the Uranian upper atmosphere, it gets really hot, really fast as you reach deeper. Couple that with the tremendous pressure in the Uranian interior, and you get the conditions for literal diamond rain. And not just little rain diamondlets, either, but diamonds that are millions of carats each—bigger than your average grizzly bear. Note also that this heat means the ice giants contain relatively little ice. Surrounding a rocky core is what is thought to be a massive ocean—though one unlike you might find on Earth. Down there, the heat and pressure keep the ocean in an "in between" state that is highly reactive and ionic.

7. IT HAS A BAKER'S DOZEN OF BABY RINGS.

Unlike Saturn's preening hoops, the 13 rings of Uranus are dark and foreboding, likely comprised of ice and radiation-processed organic material. The rings are made more of chunks than of dust, and are probably very young indeed: something on the order of 600 million years old. (For comparison, the oldest known dinosaurs roamed the Earth 240 million years ago.)

8. WE'VE BEEN THERE BEFORE AND WILL BE BACK.

The only spacecraft to ever visit Uranus was NASA's Voyager 2 in 1986, which discovered 10 new moons and two new rings during its single pass from 50,000 miles up. Because of the sheer weirdness and wonder of the planet, scientists have been itching to return ever since. Some questions can only be answered with a new spacecraft mission. Key among them: What is the composition of the planet? What are the interactions of the solar wind with the magnetic field? (That's important for understanding various processes such as the heating of the upper atmosphere and the planet's energy deposition.) What are the geological details of its satellites, and the structure of the rings?

The Voyager spacecraft gave scientists a peek at the two ice giants, and now it's time to study them up close and in depth. Hofstadter compares the need for an ice-giants mission to what happened after the Voyagers visited Jupiter and Saturn. NASA launched Galileo to Jupiter in 1989 and Cassini to Saturn in 1997. (Cassini was recently sent on a suicide mission into Saturn.) Those missions arrived at their respective systems and proved transformative to the field of planetary science.

"Just as we had to get a closer look at Europa and Enceladus to realize that there are potentially habitable oceans there, the Uranus and Neptune systems can have similar things," says Hofstadter. "We'd like to go there and see them up close. We need to go into the system." 

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