April 14, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 13

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    Analyses pinpoint origin of asteroid’s fatal fireball

    Steve Koppes
    News Office

    This painting by Donald Davis depicts an asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the Yucatan Peninsula in what is today southeast Mexico. The aftermath of this immense asteroid collision, which occurred approximately 65 million years ago, is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species on Earth. The geological studies conducted by the University’s Lawrence Grossman and Denton Ebel of the American Museum of Natural History explain the complex chemistry of the fireball that the asteroid impact produced.

    Scientists at the University and the American Museum of Natural History recently released a study explaining how a globe-encircling residue formed in the aftermath of the asteroid impact that triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs. The study, published in the April issue of the journal Geology, draws the most detailed picture yet of the complicated chemistry of the fireball produced in the impact.

    The residue consisted of sand-sized droplets of hot liquid that condensed from the vapor cloud produced by an impacting asteroid 65 million years ago.

    Scientists have proposed three different origins for these droplets, which they call “spherules.” Some researchers have theorized that atmospheric friction melted the droplets off the asteroid as it approached Earth’s surface. Still others suggested the droplets splashed out of the Chicxulub impact crater off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula following the asteroid’s collision with Earth.

    But analyses conducted by Lawrence Grossman, Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College, and Denton Ebel, assistant curator of meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History, provide new evidence for a third theory. According to their research, the droplets must have condensed from the cooling vapor cloud that girdled the Earth following the impact.

    Ebel and Grossman base their conclusions on a study of spinel, a mineral rich in magnesium, iron and nickel contained within the droplets.

    “Their paper is an important advance in understanding how these impact spherules form,” said Frank Kyte, adjunct associate professor of geochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It shows that the spinels can form within the impact plume, which some researchers argued was not possible.”

    When the asteroid struck approximately 65 million years ago, it rapidly released an enormous amount of energy, creating a fireball that rose far into the stratosphere. “This giant impact not only crushes the rock and melts the rock, but a lot of the rock vaporizes,” Grossman said. “That vapor is very hot and expands outward from the point of impact, cooling and expanding as it goes. As it cools the vapor condenses as little droplets and rains out over the whole Earth.”

    This rain of molten droplets then settled to the ground, where water and time altered the glassy spherules into the clay layer that marks the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary (now officially called the Paleogene) periods. This boundary marks the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species.

    Grossman’s laboratory, where Ebel formerly worked, specializes in analyzing meteorites that have accumulated minerals condensed from the gas cloud that formed the sun 4.5 billion years ago. Together the two scientists decided to apply their experience in performing computer simulations of the condensation of minerals from the gas cloud, which formed the solar system, to the problem of the Cretaceous-Paleogene spinels.

    UCLA’s Kyte, who himself favored a fireball origin for the spinels, has measured the chemical composition of hundreds of spinel samples from around the world.

    Ebel and Grossman built on Kyte’s work and on previous calculations Arizona researchers did that show how the asteroid’s angle of impact would have affected the chemical composition of the fireball. Vertical impacts contribute more of the asteroid and deeper rocks to the vapor, while impacts at lower angles vaporize shallower rocks at the impact site.

    Ebel and Grossman also drew upon the work of Mark Ghiorso, Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College, and the University of Washington’s Richard Sack, who have developed computer simulations that describe the stability of melted rocks.

    Ebel and Grossman’s resulting computer simulations show how rock that vaporized in the impact would condense as the fireball, cooling from temperatures tens of thousands of degrees. The simulations paint a picture of global skies filled with a bizarre rain of a calcium-rich, silicate liquid, reflecting the chemical content of the rocks around the Chicxulub impact crater.

    Their calculations told them what the composition of the spinels should be, based on the composition of both the asteroid and the bedrock at the impact site in Mexico. The results closely matched the composition of spinels that geologists found at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary around the world and which UCLA’s Kyte and his associates have measured.

    Scientists already had known the spinels found at the boundary layer in the Atlantic Ocean distinctly differed in composition from those found in the Pacific Ocean. “The spinels that are found at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary in the Atlantic formed at a hotter, earlier stage than the ones in the Pacific, which formed at a later, cooler stage in this big cloud of material that circled the Earth,” Ebel said.

    The event would have dwarfed the enormous volcanic eruptions of Krakatoa and Mount St. Helens, Ebel said. “These kinds of things are just very difficult to imagine,” he said.