Text Size

No Bones About It: NASA Analyzes Prehistoric Predator from the Past
As NASA charts a bold new course into the future, the space agency is briefly taking a step back in time to examine a Tyrannosaurus rex skull.

NASA scientists are using equipment at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., to scan the skull of a T. rex. The state-of-the-art equipment was originally designed to examine rocket motor assemblies and turbine blades. The skull, discovered on a South Dakota ranch in 1992, is believed to be the most complete and well-preserved T. rex skull ever discovered. Its discoverers have dubbed the T. rex "Samson," a Biblical name that recognizes the beast's reputation as the strongest dinosaur to roam the Earth during the late Cretaceous period.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologist Dr. K. Christopher Beard introduces Samson. Image right: Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologist Dr. K. Christopher Beard introduces Samson to a group of students at the museum. Image credit: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

"Marshall is one of the few places in the world with the technology needed for such a complex scan," said Dr. Chris Beard, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. "We are very excited NASA has agreed to provide space-age technology for this project."

Dr. Ron Beshears is leading the project at the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing located at the Marshall Center. Beshears' laboratory team of four is running various tests on the fossil with a high-tech computed tomography scanner used for nondestructive testing of parts and equipment destined for space. The scans provide Carnegie Museum experts with detailed cross-section images of the fossil. Such detail will help museum experts better understand the basic anatomy and lifestyle of the T. rex.

"The idea of working with 65 million year old dinosaur bones alongside next-generation space technologies is something we're quite excited about," Beshears said. "We're happy we can use our facility to assist in a scientific investigation of the dinosaur fossil."

The fossil arrived at the Marshall Center Dec. 1 and tests will continue for several weeks, Beshears said. Results will be used by Carnegie Museum researchers to compare Samson's skull with previous computed tomography scans of less well-preserved T. rex fossils, establishing a baseline to determine anomalies in future T. rex finds. Although privately owned, Samson is being prepared and studied by the museum for a two-year period. The dinosaur arrived at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in May 2004.

The fossil skull, separated from its skeleton by the museum for study purposes, is largely encrusted in rock. It arrived at Marshall enclosed in a shipping crate approximately 5 feet by 3.5 feet and weighing approximately 1,600 pounds. Because of the skull's fragility, it will not be removed from the crate while the test data is being performed. After all tests and examinations of the skull are completed, it will be returned to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to recreate the once-fearsome prehistoric predator.

Marshall's National Center for Advanced Manufacturing is also currently working on analyzing Space Shuttle parts in support of safe Return to Flight. Flying the Space Shuttle again is the first step in the Vision for Space Exploration, which also calls for completion of the International Space Station and development of human and robotic missions to explore the Solar System.

The project is being performed under the terms of a Space Act Agreement, which allows NASA to share technology outside the scope of its charter when such partnership doesn't interfere with the Agency's mission and is in the national interest.

Beshears said this isn't the first time his group has performed work outside the scope of normal space-related activities. In 1989, a time capsule sealed in 1889 was sent to the Marshall Center for X-ray scans. Results provided a blueprint for opening the box without damaging its contents. The capsule was opened -- with live television coverage -- at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington in April 1989.

Kim Newton, Marshall Space Flight Center