Meteorite craters on the surface of the Moon, photographed by Lunar Orbiter IV
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In the broadest sense, the term impact crater can be applied to any depression, natural or manmade, resulting from the high velocity impact of a projectile with larger body. In most common usage, the term is used for the approximately circular depression in the surface of a planet, moon or other solid body in the Solar System, formed by the hyper-velocity impact of a smaller body with the surface. This is in contrast to the pit crater which results from an internal collapse. Impact craters typically have raised rims, and they range from small, simple, bowl-shaped depressions to large, complex, multi-ringed, impact basins. Meteor Crater is perhaps the best-known example of a small impact crater on the Earth.
Impact craters provide the dominant landforms on many solid Solar System objects including the Moon, Mercury, Callisto, Ganymede and most small moons and asteroids. On other planets and moons that experience more-active surface geological processes, such as Earth, Venus, Mars, Europa, Io and Titan, visible impact craters are less common because they become eroded, buried or transformed by tectonics over time. Where such processes have destroyed most of the original crater topography, the terms impact structure or astrobleme are more commonly used. In early literature, before the significance of impact cratering was widely recognised, the terms cryptoexplosion or cryptovolcanic structure were often used to describe what are now recognised as impact-related features on Earth.
In the early Solar System, rates of impact cratering were much higher than today. The large multi-ringed impact basins, with diameters of hundreds of kilometres or more, retained for example on Mercury and the Moon, record a period of intense early bombardment in the inner Solar System that ended about 3.8 billion years ago. Since that time, the rate of crater production on Earth has been considerably lower, but it is appreciable nonetheless; Earth experiences from one to three impacts large enough to produce a 20 km diameter crater about once every million years on average. This indicates that there should be far more relatively young craters on the planet than have been discovered so far.
Although the Earth’s active surface processes quickly destroy the impact record, about 170 terrestrial impact craters have been identified. These range in diameter from a few tens of meters up to about 300 km, and they range in age from recent times (e.g. the Sikhote-Alin craters in Russia witnessed in 1947) to more than two billion years, though most are less than 200 million years old because geological processes tend to obliterate older craters. They are also selectively found in the stable interior regions of continents. Few under sea craters have been discovered because of the difficulty of surveying the sea floor, the rapid rate of change of the ocean bottom, and the subduction of the ocean floor into the Earth's interior by processes of plate tectonics.
Daniel Barringer (1860-1929) was one of the first to identify an impact crater, Meteor Crater in Arizona; to crater specialists the site is referred to as Barringer Crater in his honor. Initially Barringer's ideas were not widely accepted, and even when the origin of Meteor Crater was finally acknowledged, the wider implications for impact cratering as a significant geological process on Earth were not.
In the 1920s, the American geologist Walter H. Bucher studied a number of sites now recognized as impact craters in the USA. He concluded they had been created by some great explosive event, but believed that this force was probably volcanic in origin. However, in 1936, the geologists John D. Boon and Claude C. Albritton Jr. revisited Bucher's studies and concluded that the craters that he studied were probably formed by impacts.
The concept of impact cratering remained more or less speculative until the 1960s. At this time a number of researchers, most notably Eugene M. Shoemaker, conducted detailed studies of a number of craters and recognized clear evidence that they had been created by impacts, specifically identifying the shock-metamorphic effects uniquely associated with impact events, of which the most familiar is shocked quartz.
Armed with the knowledge of shock-metamorphic features, Carlyle S. Beals and colleagues at the Dominion Observatory in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and Wolf von Engelhardt of the University of Tübingen in Germany began a methodical search for impact craters. By 1970, they had tentatively identified more than 50. Although their work was controversial, the American Apollo Moon landings, which were in progress at the time, provided supportive evidence by recognizing the rate of impact cratering on the Moon. Processes of erosion on the Moon are minimal and so craters persist almost indefinitely. Since the Earth could be expected to have roughly the same cratering rate as the Moon, it became clear that the Earth had suffered far more impacts than could be seen by counting evident craters.
Impact cratering involves high velocity collisions between solid objects, typically much greater than the velocity of sound in those objects. Such hyper-velocity impacts produce physical effects such as melting and vaporization, that do not occur in familiar sub-sonic collisions. On Earth, ignoring the slowing effects of travel through the atmosphere, the lowest impact velocity with an object from space is equal to the gravitational escape velocity of about 11 km/s. The fastest impacts occur at more than 70 km/s, calculated by summing the escape velocity from Earth, the escape velocity from the Sun at the Earth's orbit, and the motion of the Earth around the Sun. The median impact velocity on Earth is about 20 to 25 km/s.
Impacts at these high speeds produce shockwaves in solid materials, and both impactor and the material impacted are rapidly compressed to high density. Following initial compression, the high-density, over-compressed region rapidly depressurizes, exploding violently, to set in train the sequence of events that produces the impact crater. Impact-crater formation is therefore more closely analogous to cratering by high explosives than by mechanical displacement. Indeed, the energy density of some material involved in the formation of impact craters is many times higher than that generated by high explosives. Since craters are caused by explosions, they are nearly always circular – only very low-angle impacts cause significantly elliptical craters.
It is convenient to divide the impact process conceptually into three distinct stages: (1) initial contact and compression, (2) excavation, (3) modification and collapse. In practice, there is overlap between the three processes with, for example, the excavation of the crater continuing in some regions while modification and collapse is already underway in others.
In the absence of atmosphere, the impact process begins when the impactor first touches the target surface. This contact accelerates the target and decelerates the impactor. Because the impactor is moving so rapidly, the rear of the object moves a significant distance during the short-but-finite time taken for the deceleration to propagate across the impactor. As a result, the impactor is compressed, its density rises, and the pressure within it increases dramatically. Peak pressures in large impacts exceed 1 TPa to reach values more usually found deep in the interiors of planets, or generated artificially in nuclear explosions.
In physical terms, a supersonic shockwave initiates from the point of contact. As this shockwave expands, it decelerates and compresses the impactor, and it accelerates and compresses the target. Stress levels within the shockwave far exceeds the strength of solid materials; consequently, both the impactor and the target close to the impact site are irreversibly damaged. Many crystalline minerals can be transformed into higher-density phases by shockwaves, for example the common mineral quartz can be transformed into the higher-pressure forms coesite and stishovite. Many other shock-related changes take place within both impactor and target as the shockwave passes through, and some of these changes can be used as diagnostic tools to determine whether particular geological features were produced by impact cratering.
As the shockwave decays, the shocked region decompresses towards more usual pressures and densities. The damage produced by the shockwave raises the temperature of the material, and in all but the smallest impacts this increase in temperature is sufficient to melt the impactor, and in larger impacts to vaporize most of it and to melt large volumes of the target. As well as being heated, the target near the impact is accelerated by the shockwave, and it remains moving away from the impact behind the decaying shockwave.
Contact, compression, decompression, and the passage of the shockwave all occur within a few tenths of a second for a large impact. The subsequent excavation of the crater occurs more slowly, and during this stage the flow of material is largely sub-sonic. During excavation, the crater grows as the accelerated target moves away from the impact point. The motion is initially downwards and outwards, and with time this evolves to becomes outwards and upwards. The flow initially produces an approximately hemispherical cavity. The cavity continues to grow, eventually producing a paraboloid (bowl-shaped) crater in which the centre has been pushed down, a significant volume of material has been ejected, and a topographically elevated crater rim has been pushed up. When this cavity has reached its maximum size, it is called the transient cavity.
The depth of the transient cavity is typically a quarter to a third of its diameter. Ejecta thrown out of the crater does not include material excavated from the full depth of the transient cavity - typically the depth of maximum excavation is only about a third of the total depth. As a result, about one third of the volume of the transient crater is formed by the ejection of material, and the remaining two thirds is formed by the displacement of material downwards, outwards and upwards, to form the elevated rim. For impacts into highly porous materials, a significant crater volume may also be formed by the permanent compaction of the pore space. Such compaction craters may be important on many asteroids, comets and small moons.
In large impacts, as well as material displaced and ejected to form the crater, significant volumes of target material may be melted and vaporized together with the original impactor. Some of this impact melt rock may be ejected, but most of it remains within the transient crater, initially forming a layer of impact melt coating the interior of the transient cavity. In contrast, the hot dense vaporized material expands rapidly out of the growing cavity, carrying some solid and molten material within it as it does so. As this hot vapor cloud expands, it rises and cools much like the archetypal mushroom cloud generated by large nuclear explosions. In large impacts, the expanding vapor cloud may rise to many times the scale height of the atmosphere, effectively expanding into free space.
Most material ejected from the crater is deposited within a few crater radii, but a small fraction may travel large distances at high velocity, and in large impacts it may exceed escape velocity and leave the impacted planet or moon entirely. The majority of the fastest material is ejected from close to the centre of impact, and the slowest material is ejected close to the rim at low velocities to form an overturned coherent flap of ejecta immediately outside the rim. As ejecta escapes from the growing crater, it forms an expanding curtain in the shape of an inverted cone; the trajectory of individual particles within the curtain is thought to be largely ballistic.
Small volumes of un-melted and relatively un-shocked material may be spalled at very high relative velocities from the surface of the target and from the rear of the impactor. Spalling provides a potential mechanism whereby material may be ejected into inter-planetary space largely undamaged, and whereby small volumes of the impactor may be preserved undamaged even in large impacts. Small volumes of high-speed material may also be generated early in the impact by jetting. This occurs when two surfaces converge rapidly and obliquely at a small angle, and high-temperature highly shocked material is expelled from the convergence zone with velocities that may be several times larger than the impact velocity.
In most circumstances, the transient cavity is not stable: it collapses under gravity. In small craters, less than about 4 km diameter on Earth, there is some limited collapse of the crater rim coupled with debris sliding down the crater walls and drainage of impact melts into the deeper cavity. The resultant structure is called a simple crater, and it remains bowl-shaped and superficially similar to the transient crater. In simple craters, the original excavation cavity is overlain by a lens of collapse breccia, ejecta and melt rock, and a portion of the central crater floor may sometimes be flat.
Above a certain threshold size, which varies with planetary gravity, the collapse and modification of the transient cavity is much more extensive, and the resulting structure is called a complex crater. The collapse of the transient cavity is driven by gravity, and involves both the uplift of the central region and the inward collapse of the rim. The central uplift is not the result of elastic rebound which is a process in which a material with elastic strength attempts to return to its original geometry; rather the collapse is a process in which a material with little or no strength attempts to return to a state of gravitational equilibrium.
Complex craters have uplifted centers, and they have typically broad flat shallow crater floors, and terraced walls. At the largest sizes, one or more exterior or interior rings may appear, and the structure may be labeled an impact basin rather than an impact crater. Complex-crater morphology on rocky planets appears to follow a regular sequence with increasing size: small complex craters with a central topographic peak are called central peak craters, for example Tycho; intermediate-sized craters, in which the central peak is replaced by a ring of peaks, are called peak-ring craters, for example Schrodinger; and the largest craters contain multiple concentric topographic rings, and are called multi-ringed basins, for example Orientale. On icy as opposed to rocky bodies, other morphological forms appear which may have central pits rather than central peaks, and at the largest sizes may contain very many concentric rings – Valhalla on Callisto is the type example of the latter.
Some volcanic features can resemble impact craters, and brecciated rocks are associated with other geological formations besides impact craters. Non-explosive volcanic craters can usually be distinguished from impact craters by their irregular shape and the association of volcanic flows and other volcanic materials. An exception is that impact craters on Venus often have associated flows of melted material.
The distinctive mark of an impact crater is the presence of rock that has undergone shock-metamorphic effects, such as shatter cones, melted rocks, and crystal deformations. The problem is that these materials tend to be deeply buried, at least for simple craters. They tend to be revealed in the uplifted center of a complex crater, however.
Impacts produce distinctive "shock-metamorphic" effects that allow impact sites to be distinctively identified. Such shock-metamorphic effects can include:
Craters can also be created from underground nuclear explosions. One of the most crater-pocked sites on the planet is the Nevada Test Site, where a number of craters were purposely made during its years as a center for nuclear testing (see, for example, Operation Plowshare).
The LPC Crater Types were as follows:
Beyond a couple of hundred kilometers diameter, the central peak of the TYC class disappear and they are classed as basins.
See the Earth Impact Database, a website concerned with over 170 identified impact craters on the Earth.
There are approximately twelve more impact craters/basins larger than 300 km on the Moon, five on Mercury, and four on Mars. Large basins, some unnamed but mostly smaller than 300 km, can also be found on Saturn's moons Dione, Rhea and Iapetus.