Drilling for the Dinosaurs' End

  • By Sara Tewksbury & Ari Daniel
  • Posted 09.08.16
  • NOVA

Off the coast of Mexico, the Chicxulub crater is what remains of a giant asteroid that smashed into the Earth 66 million years ago. The dinosaurs went extinct at about the same time. A team of researchers, led by co-chief scientists Sean Gulick and Joanna Morgan, went offshore to drill into the crater to determine whether the asteroid was the sudden, fiery cause of death of all dinosaurs.

Running Time: 03:07


Ari: The dinosaurs died off 66 million years ago. And we know that one day during that time, a giant rogue asteroid slammed into the Earth. But just how bad was it? Were dinosaurs around the world fried by the blast? Or was the asteroid just one factor in a long and lingering demise?

If only we could go back in time to find out what happened… well, in a way, we can. The answer just may lie beneath the sea.

Sean Gulick: So right now beneath the drilling rig and beneath where we’re sitting on this transport vessel, is the peak ring of Chicxulub, it’s buried by 66 million years of limestones.

Ari: A team of researchers is aboard a drilling rig almost 20 miles off the coast of Mexico—directly above the Chicxulub crater—ground zero for the catastrophic asteroid impact. For the first time offshore, they’re digging into that crater.

Claire Mellett: We’ve never drilled offshore. We have no physical core, or rock, from the offshore portions of the crater. So this is the kind of once in a lifetime opportunity, drilling that part of the Chicxulub impact crater.

Ari: When the asteroid hit our planet at over 40,000 miles per hour, the solid surface of the Earth, for a moment, behaved like a fluid. It’s a lot like what happens when you throw a rock into a pond. First, the asteroid caused the Earth to collapse at the site of the impact. Then, the center rose up and splashed molten rock outwards, forming a ring of mountains. This “peak ring” is now underwater.

We see peak rings on other planets and moons in our solar system. But here on Earth, erosion has wiped them all away. Except for one — the peak ring of Chicxulub.

Mellett: And here offshore, they have a peak ring preserved which is arguably the best preserved peak ring that we have on our planet.

Ari: Now, the expedition was not without difficulty.

Gulick: Had a bit of an incident, where the pipe just slipped off and ended up in the bottom of the hole... We’ve had another small problem where the two pipes were linked up in the… well, we thought they were linked up... The rig is not moving. That’s because the pump that allows it to turn is actually broken.

Ari: But finally, after a long week, science prevailed.

Gulick: But if you look behind me here, this is the first full, three-meter long core, from the expedition.

Ari: The first of many. These are cores containing the very particles created when that giant asteroid hit the Earth millions of years ago.

Gulick: This site will answer a lot of questions about how impacts work fundamentally, and then hopefully will answer questions about the mass extinction event.

Ari: Now, the researchers are working to estimate the energy of the impact and its devastating effects—to piece together what led to one of the largest extinction events in our planet’s history.



Production & Editing
Ari Daniel & Sara Tewksbury
Production Assistance
Brittany Flynn
Ari Daniel
Ben Lawrie
Amy Maher
Julius Brighton
Phil Bax
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2016


Additional Imagery
Lunar and Planetary Institute
Julian Johnson/CC BY 3.0


(main image: drilling rig)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2016

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