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Double asteroid trouble may have wiped out dinosaurs

The asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction gets a new twist as scientists look into what may have been a twin asteroid impact.

Painting of crater impact
This artist's image of the Chicxulub impact might have to be revised.
Donald E. Davis

When asteroids attack, dinosaurs lose. Though there are still competing theories as to why we lost awesome animals like Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptors, many scientists look to a long-ago asteroid impact to explain the wipeout.

A study published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters adds a new wrinkle to the asteroid assumption by suggesting that the dinos may have had to contend with not one, but two deadly balls of flying space rock. Titled "Morphology and population of binary asteroid impact craters," the study was lead by Katarina Miljkovic from the Institute of Earth Physics in Paris.

If you look out into space around Earth, you'll find that about 15 percent of asteroids are binary, meaning they're traveling in pairs. However, only 2 to 4 percent of craters on Earth have been labeled as binary impacts. Miljkovic believes this number is under-reported and that many binary asteroids have been overlooked because their craters overlap.

The study identifies certain shapes that may indicate a double crash site. These range from craters that are obviously peanut-shaped to ones that look like tear drops.

Looking for abnormalities like elongated or asymmetrical impact craters may lead scientists to discovering more binary impacts throughout history than were previously noted. This brings us to the dinosaur issue. The crater of the asteroid many scientists believe took out the dinosaurs fits this description. It is located near Chicxulub in Mexico.

"The Chicxulub crater shows some important asymmetries. It is worth considering that it was formed by a binary asteroid," Miljkovic told New Scientist.

Binary asteroids certainly spelled trouble for dinosaurs, but what does it mean for us today? Scientists are already working on ways to divert dangerous asteroids from Earth. They just might have their hands twice as full if a binary asteroid comes calling. Maybe it's time to start thinking about dealing with twins.