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UT Researchers May Have Found Clue to Early Life in the Crater of a Dino-Killing Asteroid

UT Jackson School of Geosciences
Imperial College London researcher Joanna Morgan (left) and UT researcher Sean Gulick (right) examine a sample from the site of the Chicxulub asteroid site.

When a team of researchers left Austin on a scientific expedition to drill deep into an ancient mountain range, fans of weird fiction perked up their ears. 

The plot sounded eerily familiar to the story "At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a tale about an academic team that visits an ancient mountain range, drills deep into the ground, and awakens a race of aliens – known as "the Old Ones" – who lived on Earth eons before even the dinosaurs.

“We did two different Reddits ​– AMAs, Ask Me Anythings – and both times we got questions that sounded a lot like that,” said UT Geophysicist Sean Gulick, one of the leaders of the expedition. “’Are you going to awake a sleeping alien god?' Or, 'If you do, will you admit responsibility?’”

“We, of course, said we would,” he added with a laugh.

Credit UT Jackson School of Geosciences
A map of the Chicxulub site, where an asteroid slammed into Earth 65 million years ago.

For the record, they did not rousethe Old Ones. But they did find something awe inspiring: granite.

“When we first drilled it, and granite came up out of the center of this thing that had to come from super deep. And the granite was so damaged, we were like 'Wow this is an incredible find,” he said.

To understand why, you need to know a little background about the mountains Gulick was drilling.

Over 65 million years ago, an asteroid smashed into earth and brought an apocalypse. The aftermath of impact wiped out the dinosaurs, and set the stage for man to evolve. The impact itself also created a ring of mountains close to the center of the crater.

That range is now buried deep underground, off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, it is there where the team drilled. The fact that they found granite seems to confirm a theory about how the mountains were formed.

Gyulick says imagine the asteroid hitting the earth like a pebble hits the surface of a pond.

“You can anticipate it will splash back up, you can anticipate a rebound," he said.

The pressure of the impact was so mind bogglingly intense, he says, the surface of the planet acted like that. The asteroid hit, granite from six miles underground splashed back up like a liquid, it fell around the center and left behind the ring of mountains.

But the finding may do more than solve an ancient geological mystery.

“If these peak rings are in fact coming from deep, then, every time we see a crater on another planet, whatever their peak rings are made of is telling us what the middle crust of that planet is made of,” Gulick said.

Members of the research team also believe the discovery could shed light on how life formed on earth and could form elsewhere. That’s because the environment created by the impact may have been be an ideal place for microbial life to grow.

So, even if the team didn’t awaken any aliens, they may have discovered good place to look, if we ever reach another planet.

“In in the search for life on other planets,” Gulick said “You might go investigate some of these central features in impact craters for evidence of there having once been life living in those craters.”

He expects the samples the expedition gathered to yield many more insights into that cataclysmic moment and what came after.

Sound effects in audio version of this piece courtesy of Speedenza and Setuniman via with slight alterations by Mose Buchele. 

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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