|Artist's impression of a comet striking the Earth. (Courtesy: iStock/PaulPaladin)|
Two theoretical physicists in the US have made a surprising connection between dinosaur extinction and dark matter. Lisa Randall and Matthew Reece of Harvard University believe that some of this mysterious invisible matter – which makes up 85% of all matter in the universe – could exist in a special form that affects the rate at which comets strike our planet. A comet crashing into Earth about 66 million years ago is one possible reason why these giant creatures died off.
Comets have smashed into Earth throughout its history, creating huge craters and possibly causing mass extinctions, such as that which befell the dinosaurs. Many of these comets come from the Oort cloud, which is a huge halo of small icy objects that surrounds the Sun, out to a distance of about one light year. But rather than being entirely random, there is some evidence that the frequency of comet impacts oscillates on a timescale of about 35 million years.
Although this oscillation is not certain, if it is true, there could be something on that timescale that affects the rate at which comets from the Oort cloud are sent towards Earth. Two possible explanations have been proposed so far. One – dubbed the "nemesis hypothesis" – involves the gravitational pull of an as-yet-undiscovered distant companion star to the Sun. The other involves the oscillating pull of the dense galactic disc as the solar system crosses and re-crosses the plane of the Milky Way.
Physics World: Did dark matter help kill off the dinosaurs?