You Can Blow Up an Asteroid Just a few Months Before it Hits Earth and Prevent 99% of the Damage

So far, the battle between life on Earth and asteroids has been completely one-sided. But not for long. Soon, we’ll have the capability to deter asteroids from undesirable encounters with Earth. And while conventional thinking has said that the further away the better when it comes to intercepting one, we can’t assume we’ll always have enough advance warning.

A new study says we might be able to safely destroy potentially dangerous rocky interlopers, even when they get closer to Earth than we’d like.

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The Evidence is Leaning More and More Towards an Asteroid Ending the Dinosaurs

Which camp are you in: volcanoes? Or asteroids?

When it comes to the extinction of the dinosaurs, science has whittled it down to those two possibilities. The asteroid strike has been the leading candidate for quite some time now, but those darn volcanoes refuse to stand down.

A new study is presenting even more evidence that it was the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, and not volcanoes.

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Dinosaur Killing Asteroid hit Earth in Exactly the Wrong Spot

Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid struck Earth in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico. This event, known as the Chicxulub asteroid impact, measured 9 km in diameter and caused extreme global cooling and drought. This led to a mass extinction, which not only claimed the lives of the dinosaurs, but also wiped out about 75% of all land and sea animals on Earth.

However, had this asteroid impacted somewhere else on the planet, things could have turned out very differently. According to a new study produced by a team of Japanese researchers, the destruction caused by this asteroid was due in large part to where it impacted. Had the Chicxulub asteroid landed somewhere else on the planet, they argue, the fallout would not have been nearly as severe.

The study, which recently appeared in the journal Scientific Reportsis titled “Site of asteroid impact changed the history of life on Earth: the low probability of mass extinctionand was conducted by Kunio Kaiho and Naga Oshima of Tohoku University and the Meteorological Research Institute, respectively. For the sake of their study, the pair considered how geological conditions in the Yucatan region were intrinsic to mass extinction that happened 66 million years ago.

Satellite views of the Chicxulub impact site in the Yucutan Peninsula, southern Mexico. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Dr. Kaiho and Dr. Oshima began by considering recent studies that have shown how the Chicxulub impact heated the hydrocarbon and sulfur content of rocks in the region. This is what led to the formation of stratospheric soot and sulfate aerosols which caused the extreme global cooling and drought that followed. As they state in their study, it was this (not the impact and the detritus it threw up alone) that ensured the mass extinction that followed:

“Blocking of sunlight by dust and sulfate aerosols ejected from the rocks at the site of the impact (impact target rocks) was proposed as a mechanism to explain how the physical processes of the impact drove the extinction; these effects are short-lived and therefore could not have driven the extinction. However, small fractions of stratospheric sulfate (SO4) aerosols were also produced, which may have contributed to the cooling of the Earth’s surface.

Another issue they considered was the source of the soot aerosols, which previous research has indicated were quite prevalent in the stratosphere during the Cretaceous/Paleogene (K–Pg) boundary (ca. 65 million years ago). This soot is believed to coincide with the asteroid impact since microfossil and fossil pollen studies of this period also indicate the presence of iridium, which has been traced to the Chicxulub asteroid. 

Previously, this soot was believed to be the result of wildfires that raged in the Yucatan as a result of the asteroid impact. However, Kaiho and Oshima determined that these fires could not have resulted in stratospheric soot; instead positing that they could only be produced by the burning and ejecting of hyrdocarbon material from rocks in the impact target area.

When an asteroid struck the Yucatan region about 66 million years ago, it wiped out the dinosaurs, and most of life on Earth. If it had hit elsewhere, the dinosaurs might well have survived. Credit: NASA/Don Davis
When an asteroid struck the Yucatan region about 66 million years ago, it wiped out the dinosaurs, and most of life on Earth. If it had hit elsewhere, the dinosaurs might well have survived. Credit: NASA/Don Davis

The presence of these hydrocarbons in the rocks indicate the presence of both oil and coal, but also plenty of carbonate minerals. Here too, the geology of the Yucatan was key, since the larger geological formation known as the Yucatan Platform is known to be composed of carbonate and soluble rocks – particularly limestone, dolomite and evaporites.

To test just how important the local geology was to the mass extinction that followed, Kaiho and Oshima conducted a computer simulation that took into account where the asteroid struck and how much aerosols and soot would be produced by an impact. Ultimately, they found that the resulting ejecta would have been sufficient to trigger global cooling and drought; and hence, an Extinction Level Event (ELE).

This sulfur and carbon-rich geology, however, is not something the Yucatan Peninsula shares with most regions on the planet. As they state in their study:

“Here we show that the probability of significant global cooling, mass extinction, and the subsequent appearance of mammals was quite low after an asteroid impact on the Earth’s surface. This significant event could have occurred if the asteroid hit the hydrocarbon-rich areas occupying approximately 13% of the Earth’s surface. The site of asteroid impact, therefore, changed the history of life on Earth.”

Mass extinction only occurred when the asteroid having 9-km diameter hit the orange areas. Credit: Kunio Kaiho

Basically, Kaiho and Oshima determined that 87% of Earth would not have been able to produce enough sulfate aerosols and soot to trigger a mass extinction. So if the Chicxulub asteroid struck just about anywhere else on the planet, the dinosaurs and most of the world’s animals would have likely survived, and the resulting macroevolution of mammals probably would not have taken place.

In short, modern hominids may very well owe their existence to the fact that the Chicxulub asteroid landed where it did. Granted, the majority of life in the Cretaceous/Paleogene (K–Pg) was wiped out as a result, but ancient mammals and their progeny appear to have lucked out. The study is therefore immensely significant in terms of our understanding of how asteroid impacts affect climatological and biological evolution.

It is also significant when it comes to anticipating future impacts and how they might affect our planet. Whereas a large impact in a sulfur and carbon-rich geological region could lead to another mass extinction, an impact anywhere else could very well be containable. Still, this should not prevent us from developing appropriate countermeasures to ensure that large impacts don’t happen at all!

Further Reading: Science Reports

Reexamining a Cataclysm


One of the legacies of the Apollo program is the rare lunar samples it returned. These samples (along with meteorites that originated from the moon and even one from Mars) can be radiometrically dated, and together they paint a picture a cataclysmic time in the history of our solar system. Over a period of time some 3.8 to 4.1 billion years ago, the moon underwent a fierce period of impacts that was the origin of most of the craters we see today. Paired with the “Nice model” (named after the French university where it was developed, not because it was pleasant in any way), which describes the migration of planets to their current orbits, it is widely held that the migration of Jupiter or one of the other gas giants migrations during this period, caused a shower of asteroids or comets to rain down upon the inner solar system in a time known as the “Late Heavy Bombardment” (LHB).

A new paper by astronomers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia disagrees with this picture. In 2005, Strom et al. published a paper in Science which analyzed the frequency of craters of various sizes on the lunar highlands, Mars, and Mercury (since these are the only rocky bodies in the inner solar system without sufficient erosion to wash away their cratering history). When comparing relatively young surfaces which had been more recently resurfaced to older ones from the Late Heavy Bombardment area, is that there were two separate, but characteristic curves. The one for the LHB era revealed a crater frequency peaking at craters near 100 km (62 miles) in diameter and dropping off rapidly to lower diameters. Meanwhile, the younger surfaces showed a nearly even amount of craters of all sizes measurable. Additionally, the LHB impacts were an order of magnitude more common than the newer ones.

The Strom et al. took this as evidence that two different populations of impactors were at work. The LHB era, they called Population I. The more recent, they called Population II. What they noticed was the current size distribution of main belt asteroids (MBAs) was “virtually identical to the Population 1 projectile size distribution”. Additionally, since the size distribution of the MBA is the same today, this indicated that the process which sent these bodies our way didn’t discriminate based on size, which would weed out that size and alter the distribution we observed today. This ruled out processes such as the Yarkovsky effect but agreed with the gravitational shove as a large body would move through the region. The inverse of this (that a process was selecting rocks to chuck our way based on size) would be indicative of Strom’s Population II objects.

However, in this paper recently uploaded to arXiv, Cuk et al. argue that the dates of many of the regions investigated by Strom et al. cannot be reliably dated and therefore, cannot be used to investigate the nature of the LHB. They suggest that only the Imbrium and Orientale basins, which have their formation dates precisely known from rocks retrieved by Apollo missions, can be used to accurately describe the cratering history during this period.

With this assumption, Cuk’s group reexamined the frequency of crater sizes for just these basins. When this was plotted for these two groups, they found that the power law they used to fit the data had “an index of -1.9 or -2 rather than -1.2 or -1.3 (like the modern asteroid belt)”. As such, they claim, “theoretical models producing the lunar cataclysm by gravitational ejection of main-belt asteroids are seriously challenged.”

Although they call into question Strom et al.’s model, they cannot propose a new one. They suggest some causes that are unlikely, such as comets (which have too low of impact probabilities). One solution they mention is that the population of the asteroid belt has evolved since the LHB which would account for the differences. Regardless, they conclude that this question is more open ended than previously expected and that more work will need to be done to understand this cataclysm.

K-T Boundary

What killed the dinosaurs? That’s a question that has puzzled paleontologists since dinosaurs were first discovered. Maybe the global climate changed, maybe they were killed by disease, volcanoes, or the rise of mammals. But in the last few decades, a new theory has arisen; an asteroid strike millions of years ago drastically changed the Earth’s environment. It was this event that pushed the dinosaurs over the edge into extinction. What’s the evidence for this asteroid impact? A thin dark line found in layers of sediment around the world; evidence that something devastating happened to the planet 65 million years ago. This line is known as the K-T boundary.

What is the K-T boundary? K is actually the traditional abbreviation for the Cretaceous period, and T is the abbreviation for the Tertiary period. So the K-T boundary is the point in between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. Geologists have dated this period to about 65.5 million years ago.

When physicist Luis Alvarez and geologist Walter Alvarez studied the K-T boundary around the world, they found that it had a much higher concentration of iridium than normal – between 30-130 times the amount of iridium you would expect. Iridium is rare on Earth because it sank down into the center of the planet as it formed, but iridium can still be found in large concentrations in asteroids. When they compared the concentrations of iridium in the K-T boundary, they found it matched the levels found in meteorites.

The researchers were even able to estimate what kind of asteroid must have impacted the Earth 65.5 million years ago to throw up such a consistent layer of debris around the entire planet. They estimated that the impactor must have been about 10 km in diameter, and release the energy equivalent of 100 trillion tons of TNT.

When that asteroid struck the Earth 65.5 million years ago, it destroyed a region thousands of kilometers across, but also threw up a dust cloud that obscured sunlight for years. That blocked photosynthesis in plants – the base of the food chain – and eventually starved out the dinosaurs.

Researchers now think that the asteroid strike that created the K-T boundary was probably the Chicxulub Crater. This is a massive impact crater buried under Chicxulub on the coast of Yucatan, Mexico. The crater measures 180 kilometers across, and occurred about 65 million years ago.

Geologists aren’t completely in agreement about the connection between the Chicxulub impact and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some believe that other catastrophic events might have helped push the dinosaurs over the edge, such as massive volcanism, or a series of impact events.

We have written many articles about the K-T boundary for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how the dinosaurs probably weren’t wiped out by a single asteroid, and here’s an article about how asteroids and volcanoes might have done the trick.

Here’s more information from the USGS, and an article from NASA.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about asteroid impacts. Listen to it here: Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.