An impact crater is an approximately circular depression in the surface of a planet, moon or other solid body in the Solar System, formed by the hypervelocity impact of a smaller body with the surface. In contrast to volcanic craters, which result from explosion or internal collapse, impact craters typically have raised rims and floors that are lower in elevation than the surrounding terrain. Impact craters 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 are the dominant geographic features 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 recognized as impact-related features on Earth.
The cratering records of very old surfaces, such as Mercury, the Moon, and the southern highlands of Mars, record a period of intense early bombardment in the inner Solar System around 3.9 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. The cratering rate in the inner solar system fluctuates as a consequence of collisions in the asteroid belt that create a family of fragments that are often sent cascading into the inner solar system. Formed in a collision 160 million years ago, the Baptistina family of asteroids is thought to have caused a large spike in the impact rate, perhaps causing the Chicxulub impact that may have triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Note that the rate of impact cratering in the outer Solar System could be different from the inner Solar System.
Although the EarthÕs active surface processes quickly destroy the impact record, about 170 terrestrial impact craters have been identified.
Daniel Barringer (1860-1929) was one of the first to identify a geological structure as an impact crater, the Barringer Meteorite Crater (or the "Meteor Crater") in Arizona, but at the time his ideas were not widely accepted, and when they were, there was no recognition of the fact that Earth impacts are common in geological terms.
The age of known impact craters on the Earth ranges from about a thousand to almost two billion years, though few older than 200 million years have been found, as geological processes tend to obliterate older ones. They are also selectively found in the stable interior regions of continents. Few underwater 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.
Current estimates of the rate of cratering on the Earth suggest that from one to three craters with a width greater than 20 kilometers are created every million years. This indicates that there are far more relatively young craters on the planet than have been discovered so far. Read more
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