NASA discovers 100 million year old dinosaur footprints in its backyard

Let's face it: the words "NASA," "space" and "dinosaur" don't go together nearly as often as they should, which is why everyone is so excited over the footprint pictured here.

Recently discovered on the grounds of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, experts say the massive footprint was made by an armored, plant-eating dinosaur, lumbering through the Cretaceous mud 110 million years ago. More exciting, still: the discovery of smaller footprints during excavation suggests the giant herbivore had a baby in tow.

According to amateur dinosaur tracker Ray Stanford, who discovered the larger print earlier this summer, the dinosaurs in question were likely nodosaurs. The plant-eaters could reach sizes comparable to a small elephant, and were covered in distinctive armor knobbed with protective spikes and nodes. Stanford calls them "four-footed tanks," and it's not hard to see why:

NASA discovers 100 million year old dinosaur footprints in its backyard

A nodosaur belonging to the genus Animantarx, native to Western North America, but similar to the dinosaur responsible for Stanford's track — via Wikimedia Commons

Stanford only revealed the location of the footprint to NASA on August 17, at which point the Agency called in Rob Weems, emeritus paleontologist and stratigrapher with the USGS, to confirm the find. "It's definitely a track," he said of the print, but he discovered something else in his assessment: a small second track, overlapping with the first.

"It looks to be a manus print of a much smaller dinosaur than the first one, but it looks to be the same type," explained Weems in a release issued by NASA. He continues:

If the one that came through was a female, it may have had one or more young ones following along. If you've seen a dog or cat walking with it's young, they kind of sniff around and may not go in the same direction, (as the adult) but they end up in the same place.

This is a really outstanding find, and it will be interesting to see how the Agency goes about excavating and preserving it. The ultimate goal, of course, is to make the footprints available to the public, but for now their location is being kept secret (Goddard Facilities Manager Alan Binstock refers to the prints' whereabouts as "sensitive but unclassified"). Other prints, after all, could be awaiting discovery in the immediate area.

"I've found other nodosaur tracks," said Stanford, "but what really threw me about this one [was finding it] at Goddard Space Flight Center, and I love the paradox.

"Space scientists walk along here, and they're walking where this big, bungling, heavy-armored dinosaur walked maybe 110, 112 million years ago. It's just so poetic."

Check out more photos and video of the print over at NASA.