Our Photographer-in-residence, Max Alexander heads to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico to cover the drilling of the Chicxulub crater exclusively for Asteroid Day. Follow Max’s journey right here on our blog. We will post his photos along with videos and daily updates. You can request more information and high resolution images by Emailing us. Photo Credit: “Max Alexander / B612 / Asteroid Day”
Geophysicists are returning to Earth’s most famous cosmic bullseye. Around 7 April, from a drill-ship off the coast of Yucatán, Mexico, they will start to penetrate the 200-kilometre-wide Chicxulub crater, which formed 66 million years ago when an enormous asteroid smashed into the planet. The aftermath of the impact obliterated most life on Earth, including the dinosaurs.
May 11, 2016 – Update #7
There’s a mix of media, scientists and returning drillers on the one hour supply boat ride out to the drilling platform. People from lots of backgrounds and different reasons to be on the boat but all knowing they’re heading somewhere very special. Slowly the platform appears on the Gulf of Mexico horizon, expectations are high, and we are probably all thinking about the asteroid that came out of the sky here 66 million years ago.
Basically the platform is a boat raised up about 35 metres above the sea floor by three pylons, each with a large pad that sits directly on the sea floor. We are loaded four at a time in what is called a Billy Pugh basket, with only two vertical ropes keeping us from a plunge into the ocean below, and hoisted aboard by a crane. (https://twitter.com/ESO_
The drilling is a collaboration of the British Geological Survey and European Consortium for Ocean Drilling – into an inner peak ring that extends about 40 km from ground zero. One essential reason to choose this part of the impact crater is that it’s at a depth that can be reached. The target is to get to 1500 metres by June 6th, the cut-off date due to the hurricane season, and currently they are at 825 metres. The inner ring starts at about 650 metres, so they are already drilling into this buried treasure.
We only have about three hours onboard, there’s a lot to photograph, and the time flies by. Three cores wrapped in thick protective plastic are bought out from the refrigeration unit for me to photograph, and handled with suitable reverence – each one from a different depth and clearly all very different – sedimentary, impact melt, and breccia (which is a hybrid, including granite). The two lead scientists, Professor Joanna Morgan from Imperial College London and Dr Sean Gulick from the University of Texas at Austin discuss the samples while I take photographs. They lose themselves in these priceless jewels and what they mean. They do tell me that while I was shooting they actually made a provisional conclusion about what they were looking at, for the morphology of the impact crater – science in action!
The scientists are extremely excited about the bounty they have, and Professor Morgan does tell me that she can’t sleep for thinking about the science models that are coming out of what they are seeing. Their discoveries are sure to rewrite this part of Earth’s history, unlocking secrets for both for geology and life on Earth, and underpins the serious damage asteroids do to our planet. (More about the drilling progress and its preliminary findings can be found here).
I then shoot some of the onboard labs, samples, diamond tipped drills, and the drilling operation itself – complete with two metre high 100 kg Americans working around the clock, with methodical precision. Finally portraits before the scientists have to rush off for a live radio show. It’s all over very quickly – we are hoisted back onto the supply boat, and I am positioned in the Billy Pugh basket so as to get a high shot overlooking the drilling area.
Tomorrow I have the drive to Cancun for the flight home, and just the one shot of another cenote (sinkhole) to get on the way back. I will also visit nearby Chichen Itza – the ancient Mayan World Heritage site.
So it’s been quite a blast – so to speak – and certainly one to remember. A very big thank you to Asteroid Day for sponsoring the trip, and in particular to Grig Richters and Danica Remy for all their support. Look out for my photographs on the BBC website over the coming month or so, in national and international publications, and on the Asteroid Day website.
May 10, 2016 – Update #6
Today was museum day. First up was Museo del cater de Chicxulub, near the city of Merida. Yes, the region has it’s own impact crater museum. I was hoping to photograph quartz samples from the original impact; however, what I was after was somehow lost in translation from the phone call, and they only had replicas. No matter – I had a good look around the museum and learnt a lot more about the catastrophic events that happened here. The museum is part of the Yucatán Science and Technology Park(Parque Cientifica y Technologico de Yucatan), where it is hoped that some of the best core samples from the offshore drilling will eventually return, to a new core laboratory, after they have first been to Bremen in Germany. This seems a very good way of enhancing science locally.
Having taken sympathy on me, the staff gave me a complimentary pass to an exhibition on the extinction of dinosaurs at El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Merida. It turned out to be a useful trip as they had several iridium rock samples in their permanent collection, which I was allowed to photograph. The discovery of an iridium layer around the world was the smoking gun that the Chicxulub impact led to the extinction of the dinosaurs (recent research shows that they were in decline for 50 million years, but the impact was very likely the tipping point), and over 75% of life on Earth. The iridium hypothesis is not universally accepted in the scientific community; however, I think it’s fair to say that there it is currently a very good consensus. The offshore drilling of the peak ring may well shed light on this part of the puzzle.
Dinosaurs and space. You can’t really go wrong when you put those two things together!
May 9, 2016 – Update #5
Today Max posted about Tim Peake’s tweet, here.
— Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) May 9, 2016
May 8, 2016 – Update #4
May 7, 2016 – Update #3
Day three here in the heart of the impact crater (well, sitting on top of it) and the alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m again. Ouch!
It’s back to ground zero to catch the magic hour – that sumptuous period of light, at both ends of the day, around sunrise and sunset. As seen from space it’s what’s called the terminator – the transition from night to day. I want to first catch the dawn from the pier at Chicxulub (you want to know how to pronounce this Mayan name, right? I’ve been wondering myself for awhile, so I asked the locals. Chic, shoe, lube – is about close enough) — that is rammed full of locals fishing at 5:00 in the morning. The dawn seems a good metaphor for me — as 66 million years ago it was the start of a new day for our planet. I’m always looking for little vignettes that underpin the story, hopefully without overegging the pudding. Say things falling out of the sky. Maybe it’s the birds diving into the water for fish (birds evolved from dinosaurs…), or it’s a threatening looking cloud that gives the impression of an asteroid heading this way. Well, to my mind anyhow!
What follows next is what is known as bounce light — just before sunrise, when the sunlight bounces off the atmosphere. It’s a beautiful soft light, still directional with some measure of light and shade, with warm colours — often magenta, depending on how much dust is in the atmosphere. It’s really my favourite backdrop to the theatre that is playing out. In exactly the opposite direction to the Sun I can see the Earth’s shadow extending out into the atmosphere, and beyond that unseen into space — a dark blue band, drained of most of its colour, right down on the horizon. This shadow descends quickly, in concert with the rising Sun. Above that the rosy pink colours of the Belt of Venus, and then back into blue again. Magic!
I don’t normally photograph sunrises and sunsets themselves (does that sound a bit pompous!) but the Sun reminds us that we live in the solar system, in our cosmic habitat. I have to work quickly as things are changing fast, and shoot both towards the Sun, and then the other way, using the Sun’s warm and still soft light, before it hardens up. All the while looking for lady luck, whose mercy I am at — people on the pier doing something that fits into my picture, a boat passing, some drama in the sky…
That phase of the morning over in a flash, I carrying on looking for pictures for another hour or so, as the Sun rises ever higher. Well, while the Earth spins actually, (while we’re in cosmic mode here). Appearances can be deceptive! It’s important to give a sense of place here at Chicxulub, and using the coastline is an obvious way, so I focus in on that. If time allows, I will return to places several times to get better photographs, especially when at the hands of mother nature. Knowing what is coming helps. So I will be back again this evening, except everything will be in reverse.
May 6, 2016 – Update #2
Day two on the Chicxulub shoot and it’s an early start. Up before dawn and a drive to Chicxulub Playa – ground zero when the asteroid struck 66 million years ago. The landscape has much changed in that time, with the Yucatan Peninsula being thrust upwards to its current position. But this is it – where the asteroid struck, initially gouging out a giant chasm in the Earth, and changing the history of the planet. It wiped out 75% of life, and also of course the dinosaurs. It’s also a major reason why humans had the chance to evolve.
Back to the hotel for breakfast, then I meet up with Samuel – my Mayan guide for the day. By lunchtime we’ve made the drive through remote villages to a cenote – Spanish for sinkhole. These limestone holes, at about 60 km radius from ground zero, trace out the southern boundary of the ‘peak ring’ – the same raised inner ring that is being drilled into on the offshore platform to the north.
Samuel explains to me that ancient Mayans used to live in these cenotes – which are really a network of caves, and where the soft limestone has collapsed – to escape the sun. They did this so as not be ruled by is diurnal motion. They wanted to eat, work, sleep – to live their lives – by their own needs and their own timetable.
There’s a lot of contrast from the harsh sun in my sinkhole picture, so I get some safe shots and wait for the sun to set – for the flatter light I’m after. In the meantime I join the locals and tourists for an indulgent swim in the sinkhole’s warm waters. Hopefully my Asteroid Day sponsors won’t think I’m being lax with my timetable…
May 5, 2016 – Mexico, Update #1
It seemed entirely appropriate that we had a very bumpy ride coming into land at Cancun Airport – here on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico — where a 10+ km asteroid collided with the Earth 66 million years ago, and lead directly to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Dark skies overhead from a tropical storm welcomed me, along with a torrential downpour.
I then drove the 300 km to Chicxulub on the Yucatan coast — which is ground zero for the asteroid impact, and near the offshore drilling platform that is currently taking core samples for both the geology and the biology of this catastrophic event. The impact crater is at least 180 km across; not quite the distance I travelled, but it gave me a very good idea of it’s extent – along with it’s 20 km depth. And it was striking to know that the crater was buried beneath me – covered up by nature over the millions of years that have passed.
May 5, 2016 – Mexico, Max just landed:
May 3, 2016 Max in London, starts his journey
Max Alexander’s first vlog. Before getting on the road!