Scientists Suggest That Dinosaur Fossils Made It To The Moon And Beyond

While we won't tend to associate STEM fields with creative free-spirits, it's nonetheless true that creativity can be a powerful ally in scientific pursuits.

Although the primary goal of science is to better understand the world around us and beyond, it's hard to do that if your curiosity and imagination don't lead you to ask the right questions. Because while great discoveries can certainly happen by accident, it helps to know what you're looking for and where you expect to find your answer.

So while many of us might just laugh and not think much of it when a toddler asks if there are dinosaurs in space, that's exactly the kind of question that might get the wheels turning in some scientists' heads.

And it obviously did at one point because it now looks like that toddler might be onto something.

For some reason, there's a precedent for missions to space bringing Earth's fossils along with them.

As Smithsonian Magazine reported, astronaut Loren Acton brought bone and eggshell fragments from a 76-million-year-old hadrosaur to SpaceLab 2 back in 1985.

Thirteen years later, the shuttle Endeavor would make a similar delivery of a Triassic theropod skull to the former Russian space station Mir in 1998. In both cases, the fossils were returned to Earth once these respective missions were completed.

However, it turns out that the presence of fossils in space is not only older than that idea, but humanity itself.

As outlined by the BBC, an extraterrestrial object the size of a small city struck what is now Chicxulub, Mexico 66 million years ago.

Not only is this impact widely blamed for the extinction of the dinosaurs, but it was also responsible for launching about 154 billion pounds of rock into space. And while much of it either fell back down to Earth, burned up on the way to the sun, or left the solar system entirely, at least 44,000 pounds of it likely spread throughout the solar system.

That information comes from a research team led by Rachel Worth of Penn State University, who suggested that such an event may have brought life to other planets.

According to the BBC, this theory relies on a concept called panspermia in which organisms — typically microbes — manage to "hitchhike" on comets and space-faring debris from meteor strikes until they reach completely different parts of the solar system.

Simulation models made by Worth's team indicate that 360,000 rocks large enough to make this hitchhiking possible found their way to Mars, while at least six made it as far as Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

As Worth said, "Even using conservative, realistic estimates [...] it's still possible that organisms could be swimming around out there in the oceans of Europa."

And even if this turns out not to be the case, that same principle of panspermia has likely resulted in many of our fossils finding their way to Mars and even the moon.

That said, a study led by Mark Burchell from the U.K.'s University of Kent and reported in New Scientist found that based on simulations Burchell's team ran on the impact speeds of meteorites, it's very unlikely that a complete fossil would have survived the trip to either location.

But it's nonetheless possible that a mission to the moon could recover usable fragments of these fossils if those behind it somehow knew where to look.

And if such a mission were successful, those fossils fragments could likely fill in the blanks from what our own fossils have taught us about the prehistoric world.

As Burchell told New Scientist, many of Earth's fossils were destroyed long before we would even think to look for them due to how geologically active it is. We do tend to have a lot of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on this planet, after all.

But since that's not such a big problem on the moon, any fossils that somehow stayed intact during the initial impact would likely be very well-preserved.

As Burchell put it, "There is a good chance even if you found fragments, there would be things you have not seen before."

h/t: BBC, New Scientist

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