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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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Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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10 Astonishing Things You Should Know About the Milky Way
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Our little star and the tiny planets that circle it are part of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its name comes from the Greek galaxias kyklos ("milky circle") and Latin via lactea ("milky road"). Find a remote area in a national park, miles from the nearest street light, and you'll see exactly why the name makes sense and what all the fuss is about. Above is not a sky of black, but a luminous sea of whites, blues, greens, and tans. Here are a few things you might not know about our spiraling home in the universe.

1. THE MILKY WAY IS GIGANTIC.

The Milky Way galaxy is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers (about 621,371,000,000,000,000 miles) across. Even traveling at the speed of light, it would still take you well over 100,000 years to go from one end of the galaxy to the other. So it's big. Not quite as big as space itself, which is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big," as Douglas Adams wrote, but respectably large. And that's just one galaxy. Consider how many galaxies there are in the universe: One recent estimate says 2 trillion.

2. IT'S JAM-PACKED WITH CELESTIAL STUFF.

artist's illustration of the milky way galaxy and its center
An artist's concept of the Milky Way and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at its core.
ESA–C. Carreau

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy composed of an estimated 300 billion stars, along with dust, gas, and celestial phenomena such as nebulae, all of which orbits around a hub of sorts called the Galactic Center, with a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star") at its core. The bar refers to the characteristic arrangement of stars at the interior of the galaxy, with interstellar gas essentially being channeled inward to feed an interstellar nursery. There are four spiral arms of the galaxy, with the Sun residing on the inner part of a minor arm called Orion. We're located in the boondocks of the Milky Way, but that is OK. There is definitely life here, but everywhere else is a question mark. For all we know, this might be the galactic Paris.

3. FOR A SPIRAL GALAXY, IT'S PRETTY TYPICAL …

If you looked at all the spiral galaxies in the local volume of the universe, the Milky Way wouldn't stand out as being much different than any other. "As galaxies go, the Milky Way is pretty ordinary for its type," Steve Majewski, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia and the principal investigator on the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), tells Mental Floss. "It's got a pretty regular form. It's got its usual complement of star clusters around it. It's got a supermassive black hole in the center, which most galaxies seem to indicate they have. From that point of view, the Milky Way is a pretty run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy."

4. …AND YET IT STANDS OUT AMONG ALL GALAXIES.

On the other hand, he tells Mental Floss, spiral galaxies in general tend to be larger than most other types of galaxies. "If you did a census of all the galaxies in the universe, the Milky Way would seem rather unusual because it is very big, our type being one of the biggest kinds of galaxies that there are in the universe." From a human perspective, the most important thing about the Milky Way is that it definitely managed to produce life. If they exist, the creatures in Andromeda, the galaxy next door (see #9), probably feel the same way about their own.

5. FIGURING OUT ITS STRUCTURE FROM THE INSIDE IS A CHALLENGE.


John McSporran, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

We have a very close-up view of the phenomena and forces at work in the Milky Way because we live inside of it, but that internal perspective places astronomers at a disadvantage when it comes to determining a galactic pattern. "We have a nice view of the Andromeda galaxy because we can see the whole thing laid out in front of us," Majewski says. "We don't have that opportunity in the Milky Way."

To figure out its structure, astronomers have to think like band members during a football halftime show. Though spectators in the stands can easily see the letters and shapes being made on the field by the marchers, the band can't see the shapes they are making. Rather, they can only work together in some coordinated way, moving to make these patterns and motions on the field. So it is with telescopes and stars.

6. INTERSTELLAR DUST BLOCKS OUR VIEW OF SOME PARTS OF THE GALAXY.

Interstellar dust further stymies astronomers. "That dust blocks our light, our view of the more distant parts of the Milky Way," Majewski says. "There are areas of the galaxy that are relatively obscured from view because they are behind huge columns of dust that we can't see through in the optical wavelengths that our eyes work in." To ameliorate this problem, astronomers sometimes work in longer wavelengths such as radio or infrared, which lessen the effects of the dust.

7. THE MILKY WAY SPINS, BUT ITS SPEED DOESN'T ADD UP …

Astronomers can make pretty reasonable estimates of the mass of the galaxy by the amount of light they can see. They can count the galaxy's stars and calculate how much those stars should weigh. They can account for all the dust in the galaxy and all of the gas. And when they tally the mass of everything they can see, they find that it is far short of what is needed to account for the gravity that causes the Milky Way to spin.

In short, our Sun is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the galaxy, and astronomers know that it goes around the galaxy at about 144 miles per second. "If you calculate it based on the amount of matter interior to the orbit of the Sun, how fast we should be going around, the number you should get is around 150 or 160 kilometers [93–99 miles] per second," Majewski says. "Further out, the stars are rotating even faster than they should if you just account for what we call luminous matter. Clearly there is some other substance in the Milky Way exerting a gravitational effect. We call it dark matter."

8. … AND WE BLAME DARK MATTER FOR THAT.

Dark matter is a big problem in galactic studies. "In the Milky Way, we study it by looking at the orbits of stars and star clusters and satellite galaxies, and then trying to figure out how much mass do we need interior to the orbit of that thing to get it moving at the speed that we can measure," Majewski says. "And so by doing this kind of analysis for objects at different radii across the galaxy, we actually have a fairly good idea of the distribution of the dark matter in the Milky Way—and yet we still have no idea what the dark matter is."

9. THE MILKY WAY IS ON A COLLISION COURSE WITH ANDROMEDA. BUT DON'T PANIC.

andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy
ESA/Hubble & NASA

Sometime in the next 4 or 5 billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will smash into each other. The two galaxies are about the same size and have about the same number of stars, but there is no cause for alarm. "Even though there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy and a comparable number, or maybe more, in Andromeda, when they collide together, not a single star is expected to hit another star. The space between stars is that vast," Majewski says.

10. WE'RE THROWING EVERYTHING WE HAVE AT STUDYING IT.

There are countless spacecraft and telescopes studying the Milky Way. Most famous is the Hubble Space Telescope, while other space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, and Kepler are also returning data to help astronomers unlock the mysteries of our swirling patch of stars. The next landmark telescope in development is NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. It should finally launch in 2019. Meanwhile, such ambitious projects as APOGEE are working out the structure and evolution of our spiral home by doing "galactic archaeology." APOGEE is a survey of the Milky Way using spectroscopy, measuring the chemical compositions of hundreds of thousands of stars across the galaxy in great detail. The properties of stars around us are fossil evidence of their formation, which, when combined with their ages, helps astronomers understand the timeline and evolution of the galaxy we call home. 

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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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