Hawai'i Space Grant Consortium, Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, University of Hawai'i, 1996
To determine the factors affecting the appearance of impact craters and ejecta.
The circular features so obvious on the Moon's surface are impact craters formed when impactors smashed into the surface. The explosion and excavation of materials at the impacted site created piles of rock (called ejecta) around the circular hole as well as bright streaks of target material (called rays) thrown for great distances.
Two basic methods that form craters in nature are:
1) impact of a projectile on the surface and 2) collapse of the top of a
volcano creating a crater termed caldera.
By studying all types of craters on Earth and by creating impact craters in experimental laboratories, geologists concluded that the Moon's craters are impact in origin.
The factors affecting the appearance of impact craters and ejecta are the size and velocity of the impactor, and the geology of the target surface.
By recording the number, size, and extent of erosion of craters, lunar geologists can determine the ages of different surface units on the Moon and can piece together the geologic history. This technique works because older surfaces are exposed to impacting meteorites for a longer period of time than are younger surfaces.
Impact craters are not unique to the Moon. They are found on all the terrestrial planets and on many moons of the outer planets.
On Earth, impact craters are not as easily recognized because of weathering and erosion. Famous impact craters on Earth are Meteor Crater in Arizona, U.S.A.; Manicouagan in Quebec, Canada; Sudbury in Ontario, Canada; Ries Crater in Germany, and Chicxulub on the Yucatan coast in Mexico. Chicxulub is considered by most scientists as the source crater of the catastrophe that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. An interesting fact about the Chicxulub crater is that you cannot see it. Its circular structure is nearly a kilometer below the surface and was originally identified from magnetic and gravity data.
This activity was adapted from a cratering activity developed by Karen Nishimoto and Robin Otagaki, Punahou School.
Lunar Impact Crater
Typical characteristics of a lunar impact crater are labeled on this photograph of Aristarchus, 42 im in diameter, located West of Mare Imbrium.
bowl shaped or flat, characteristically below surrounding ground level unless filled in with lava.
blandet of mateial surrounding the crater that was excavated during the impact event. Ejecta becomes thinner away from the crater.
- raised rim
rock thrown out of the crater and deposited as a ring-shaped pile of debris at the crater's edge during the explosion and excavation of an impact event.
characteristically steep and may have giant stairs called terraces.
bright streaks starting from a crater and extending away for great distances. See Copernicus crater for another example.
- central uplifts
mountains formed becuase of the huge increase and rapid decrease in pressure during the impact event. They occur only in the center of craters that are larger than 40 km diameter. See Tycho crater for another example.
In this activity, marbles or other spheres such as steel shot, ball bearings, or golf balls are used as impactors that students drop from a series of heights onto a prepared "lunar surface." Using impactors of different mass dropped from the same height will allow students to study the relationship of mass of the impactor to crater size. Dropping impactors from different heights will allow students to study the relationship of velocity of the impactor to crater size.
Review and prepare materials listed on the student sheet.
The following materials work well as a base for the "lunar surface." Dust with a topping of dry tempera paint, powdered drink mixes glitter or other dry material in a contrasting color. Use a sieve, screen , or flour sifter. Choose a color that contrasts with the base materials for most striking results.
- all purpose flour
- Reusable in this activity and keeps well in a covered container.
- baking soda
- It can be recycled for use in the lava layering activity or for many other science activities. Reusable in this activity, even if colored, by adding a clean layer of new white baking soda on top. Keeps indefinitely in a covered container. Baking soda mixed (1:1) with table salt also works.
- corn meal
- Reusable in this activity but probably not recyclable. Keeps only in freezer in airtight container.
- sand and corn starch
- Mixed (1:1), sand must be very dry. Keeps only in freezer in airtight container.
Pans should be plastic, aluminum, or cardboard. Do not use glass. They should be at least 7.5 cm deep. Basic 10"x12" aluminum pans or plastic tubs work fine, but the larger the better to avoid misses. Also, a larger pan may allow students to drop more marbles before having to resurface and smooth the target materials.
A reproducible student "Data Chart" is included; students will need a separate chart for each impactor used in the activity.
- Begin by looking at craters in photographs of the Moon and asking students their ideas of how craters formed.
- During this activity, the flour, baking soda, or dry paint may fall onto the floor and the baking soda may even be disbursed into the air. Spread newspapers under the pan(s) to catch spills or consider doing the activity outside. Under supervision, students have successfully dropped marbles from second-story balconies. Resurface the pan before a high drop.
- Have the students agree beforehand on the method they will use to "smooth" and resurface the material in the pan between impacts. The material need not be packed down. Shaking or tilting the pan back and forth produces a smooth surface. Then be sure to reapply a fresh dusting of dry tempera paint or other material. Remind students that better experimental control is achieved with consistent handling of the materials. For instance, cratering results may vary if the material is packed down for some trials and not for others.
- Allow some practice time for dropping marbles and resurfacing the materials in the pan before actually recording data.
- Because of the low velocity of the marbles compared with the velocity of real impactors, the experimental impact craters may not have raised rims. Central uplifts and terraced walls will be absent.
- The higher the drop height, the greater the velocity of the marble, so a larger crater will be made and the ejecta will spread out farther.
- If the impactor were dropped from 6 meters, then the crater would be larger. The students need to extrapolate the graph out far enough to read the predicted crater diameter.
Have the class compare and contrast their hypotheses on what things affect the appearance of craters and ejecta.
- As a grand finale for your students, demonstrate a more forceful impact using a slingshot.
- What would happen if you change the angle of impact? How could this be tested? Try it! Do the results support your hypothesis?
If the angle of impact is changed, then the rays will be concentrated and longer in the direction of impact. A more horizontal impact angle produces a more skewed crater shape.
- To focus attention on the rays produced during an impact, place a paper bulls-eye target with a central hole on top of a large, flour-filled pan. Students drop a marble through the hole to measure ray lengths and orientations.
- Use plaster of Paris or wet sand instead of dry materials.
- Videotape the activity.
- Some people think the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by massive global climate changes because of a meteorite impact on Earth. Summarize the exciting work that has been done at Chicxulub on the Yucatan coast of Mexico.
- Some people think Earth was hit by an object the size of Mars that caused a large part of Earth to "splash" into space, forming the Moon. Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.
- Physics students could calculate the velocities of the impactors from various heights. (Answers from heights of 30 cm, 60 cm, 90 cm, and 2 m should, of course, agree with the velocity values shown on the "Impact Craters - Data Chart".
Go to Impact Craters Student Pages
Go to Impact Craters Data Chart.
Go to Impact Craters Graph.
Return to Impact Craters Activity Index.
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