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UFS team to study destruction caused by Vredefort meteorite

18 June 2019 - 09:41 By ernest mabuza
Vredefort Dome is about 120km outside of Johannesburg.
Vredefort Dome is about 120km outside of Johannesburg.
Image: Unesco/Francesco Bandarin

A team of five scientists from the University of the Free State is about to undertake research into the destruction caused by the Vredefort Crater meteorite.

The ancient meteorite could hold clues critical to the history, mechanisms and consequences of meteorite strikes on earth and elsewhere in the solar system.

The team said the results of this work could lead to a better understanding of the effects of such impacts and greater safety of the earth.

The team said the vast crater was also fascinating for human interest on early mankind, who used it as a centre of cultural importance and left rock carvings as proof of their presence.

The university is situated only 290km from the largest meteorite crater on earth. The crater has an initial diameter of 300km, and - at more than two billion years old - is the oldest impact crater on earth. The meteorite that made the impact was travelling at 70,000km/h when it struck the earth.

Had mankind been present at the time of the Vredefort impact, it could have led to human extinction on earth.

An international team of scientists is being led by principal investigator Dr Matthew Huber, the head of faculty of the natural and agricultural sciences at the university's Department of Geology.

“As impact events can potentially represent a threat to life with the ability to alter the development of entire planets, it is critical that we develop a better understanding of their history, mechanisms, and consequences.

“By studying the traces of impact events on earth, we can reconstruct the mechanisms of such processes, and gain greater understanding of our own ecosystem and origin, ”  Huber said.

Huber said the Vredefort impact was massive – it was larger than the impact that killed the dinosaurs. “If it happened today, civilization might be at an end.”

Huber said the team knew only of three such impact craters preserved on earth: the Chicxulub crater that killed the dinosaurs, the Sudbury crater in Canada, and the Vredefort crater. 

“What is really unique about Vredefort is that we get to see the deep architecture below these massive-impact craters, and those deep rocks tell not only the story of what happened at the moment of impact, but also how those rocks adjusted and shifted for thousands of years after the impact.”

Huber said the team was certain that the asteroid that caused the Vredefort impact event was about 10 to 15 kilometres in diameter. The team want to know what the Vredefort structure looked like and what it was composed of before it was hit.