We May Know Where the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid Came From. How Does That Help Us?

Asteroid that killed the dinosaurs may have come from the outer half of the asteroid belt 8 photos
Photo: SwRI/Don Davis
433 Eros asteroid433 Eros asteroidBennu and other asteroidsSides of asteroid BennuSelf-destruction of asteroid 6478 GaultAsteroid that killed the dinosaurs may have come from the outer half of the asteroid belt
About 66 million years ago, give or take a period of time too great for us humans to understand, a 6.2 miles (10 km) asteroid came crashing down somewhere in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Upon impact, the rock detonated with the power of about 100 million Tsar bombs, the most powerful nuclear device ever created by humans.
After the impact, the Earth was still standing, but the effects of the blast killed most of Earth’s species, including the dominant one at the time, the dinosaurs.

Now, this extinction-level event has been at the center of countless studies, books, and movies, and that tends to give one the impression we know all there is to know about it. But that’s far from being true as, for instance, even to this day, we have no idea where the asteroid came from.

Our solar system is a nursery of such dangerous pieces of rock. The main asteroid belt, floating aimlessly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, is the best known such collection of floating space debris, but there are other dangerous places as well.

It’s likely the dinosaur-killing asteroid came from the main belt, but that is a very large place, containing an estimated “1.9 million asteroids larger than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter, and millions of smaller ones,” according to NASA. And all are spread in a torus formation in a space some 92 million miles (150 million km) wide.

Bennu and other asteroids
Photo: NASA
So, pinpointing the place where the asteroid originated is not an easy task. Doing so might help us better understand the dangers that lie ahead for our species and now, thanks to a research by a team from the Southwest Research Institute, we might have a better idea of where it came from. And a scarier one, at that.

Depending on composition, there are three types of asteroids we know of. We have M-types, made mostly of nickel-iron, S-types, comprising silicate materials and nickel-iron, and C-types, made of clay and silicate rocks.

The Yucatan asteroid belongs to the C-type class, which is the most common of them all. The thing with most such asteroids though is that they are not usually as big as the one that hit our planet long ago.

Knowing this, scientists began looking for asteroids that meet the two requirements for size and composition. Using the NASA Pleiades supercomputer, the team started looking at the methods through which objects escape the main asteroid belt.

Self\-destruction of asteroid 6478 Gault
Photo: NASA, ESA, K. Meech and J. Kleyna (University of Hawaii), and O. Hainaut (European Southern Observatory)
130,000 model asteroids were tracked this way in a simulated timeframe spanning millions of years, and the results indicate there’s a very good chance the dinosaur-killing asteroid came from the outer half of the asteroid belt, the one closer to Jupiter than Mars.

Now, that may not seem that impressive for the uninitiated, but it does point to dangers coming from less expected places. That piece of info also came with the supercomputer-backed knowledge that asteroids head our way from this region “10 times more often than previously calculated.” Or, in numbers we can better understand, an asteroid the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs is moving to us from that place once every 250 million years.

Now, 66 or so million years have passed since the last major impact, so based on this timescale we might consider ourselves safe. But one can never be sure with such things and, as a recent NASA simulation has shown, humanity is not nearly ready to defend itself against hurtling space rocks.

The knowledge of the Yucatan asteroid having originated into a rather unexpected region of space does nothing but warn once more we really should keep as many eyes in the sky as possible, as celestial dynamics taking place over millions of years in places we believe harmless may have a huge impact on us all.

For the first time in history, humans seem to believe that it will probably not be wars or diseases that wipe us now, but something coming from the big dark void that surrounds us.

And we’re planning to at least devise some means of defense, starting with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test that launches this November.

The Southwest Research Institute study detailing the findings can be found here.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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