For decades, scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., have been looking into the heavens to better understand our place in the universe, oblivious to a fascinating piece of Earth history literally under their feet.
About 110 million years ago, the land that now sports one of NASA's premiere science centers was home to a four-footed tank of a dinosaur called a nodosaur, one of which left a calling card — a deep footprint inside ancient mud.
"Space scientists may walk along here, and they're walking exactly where this big, bungling heavy armored dinosaur walked," amateur dinosaur tracker Ray Stanford said in an article published Monday on a NASA website .
The imprint shows the right rear foot of a nodosaur — a "low-slung, spiny leaf-eater — apparently moving in haste," said Stanford, noting that the dinosaur's heel did not fully settle in the cretaceous mud.
The space agency isn't disclosing the exact location of the print, which is about the size of a dinner plate.
"The agency considers the footprint and its location sensitive, but unclassified," Goddard facilities manager Alan Binstock said in the NASA article.
NASA will consult with state officials and paleontologists to come up with a plan for documenting and preserving the print, he added.
Stanford, who is credited with discovering the nodosaur from a fossilized hatchling found near the University of Maryland in College Park, also found several smaller footprints — three-toed, flesh-eating therapods — at the Goddard site.
ANIMAL PLANET: Late Cretaceous Dinosaurs in North America
After confirming the tracks were authentic with Johns Hopkins University paleontologist David Weishampel, Stanford disclosed the find to NASA officials and a Washington Post reporter on Friday.
Images: Top: Dinosaur tracker Ray Stanford shows off a footprint from a cretaceous-era nodoasaur discovered at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Inset: Fossilized sediment shows the right rear foot of the nodosaur. Credit: NASA/Ray Stanford