UT researcher will explore crater linked to mass dinosaur extinction

Zainab Calcuttawala

A UT associate professor will help lead an international team of researchers into the crater created by an asteroid linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The crater was created by an asteroid that hit the Earth 65.5 million years ago, and is connected to the extinction of three-quarters of all life on earth, according to associate research professor Sean Gulick, who will co-lead the project.

According to Gulick, the goal of the expedition is to recover a cross section of earth from the center of the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

The rock samples procured from the expedition will be used to further the study of the evolution of life on earth as well as the formation process of impact craters, Gulick said.

“[The Chicxulub crater] is the only impact crater linked to a mass extinction event — therefore, it is an incredible opportunity to study how life recovered after the mass extinction,” Gulick said. “Also, we can see the way impact craters look on other planets, but on Earth we can collect the samples and figure out fundamental things about the process that makes them possible.”

The exploration is the latest of decades of initiatives to study the asteroid crater, senior research scientist Gail Christeson said.

“I have been involved in studying the crater for 20 years and it has been a very large effort involving universities from all over the world,” Christeson said. “We can image the crater really well using geophysical techniques, but we do not actually have samples of what we are imaging. That is what the drilling will do.”

After the expedition, half of the core will be sent to Germany, where an international team of geologists will analyze the samples, while other half will be stored at a repository at Texas A&M University for future research needs.

The rock samples will either improve or challenge existing research on impact craters, because previous data has been incomplete, according to Jason Sanford, geological sciences graduate student.

“Some of those sediments have been drilled before, but the data for those drill sets are either not well-preserved or not recorded at all,” Sanford said. “The new cores will be really great data points that will either corroborate or change what [geologists’] interpretations were.”

The project’s short time span and unprecedented nature poses a special challenge as researchers strive to extract the very best samples, Gulick said.

“We will be only be out be out to sea for two months, so we need to use every bit of that time wisely,” Gulick said. “You never know what is going to happen when you literally drill 5000 feet into the earth’s surface and bring back cores.”