The Chicxulub Crater

April 10, 2015 9:00 am

Sixty-six million years ago at the end of the cretaceous period an asteroid struck the earth in a location that is now known as the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. It is one of the largest known impacts that earth has ever received and has been held responsible for the extinction of three-quarters of the earth’s plant and animal species at the time. This gargantuan crater sits grandly off the coast of Mexico, and is a worrying reminder of the power and unpredictability of our solar system. It is known as the Chicxulub crater.

The Chicxulub crater is more than 180 km (110 miles) wide and 20 km (12 miles) deep, and the asteroid that formed this crater is calculated to have been the size of Mt Everest. If you were to dive off the side of the crater and hold a classic skydiving belly-to-earth position you would reach terminal velocity – roughly 195 km/h or 122 mph – and would fall for roughly four-minutes before you impacted with the ground below. When the asteroid hit earth, its impact released the equivalent of 100 teratons of TNT. In contrast, the most powerful man-made explosion was that of the Tsar hydrogen bomb which was detonated in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago on 30th October 1961. This bomb released the energy of 50 megatons of TNT, meaning that the Chicxulub asteroid impact was two-million times more powerful than the Tsar hydrogen bomb. It was so powerful, the impact killed every single land dwelling dinosaur on the planet through the production of simultaneous mega tsunamis, global earthquakes, wildfires and volcanic eruptions. The dust and particles released from the burrowing of the asteroid may also have covered the entire surface of the earth for up to a decade. However, some theorists believe that the Chicxulub asteroid was a blessing in disguise – at least for the human species. As this impact altered the conditions of earth, which later enabled Homo sapiens to thrive.

There have been numerous asteroid impacts on earth ranging from extremely large to extremely small. In fact, small asteroids with a diameter of approximately four meters hit the earth roughly every 1.3 years. Whereas larger asteroids with a diameter of roughly 1,000 meters hit the earth roughly every 440,000 years. If an asteroid has a diameter of less than one meter then it is called a meteoroid; and they seldom make it to the ground due to burning up in the earth’s atmosphere. You may also like to know that there are no near earth asteroids (NEA’s) large enough to cause the demise of the entire human race in a single blow, and if an asteroid of this size were to head for earth, we would have months of notice thanks to the space agencies that are constantly looking to the stars – I’ll let you decide whether knowing that a pending catastrophic asteroid impact is looming, is a good or a bad thing. However, if a smaller NEA were to head for earth – just as asteroid 2005 YU55 did at 18:28 on Tuesday 8th November 2011, which was the size of a military aircraft carrier and passed closely between the earth and moon – then there would be almost no notice. And if the asteroid were large enough it could release so much energy upon impact that it could alter the earth’s climate so severely that crops may not grow for years, therefore, causing mass starvation.

Earth is nothing more than a snooker ball in a galaxy sized game of billiards and one thing we know for sure is that one day, a large asteroid will hit again. The question is, when?

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