Meteor crater: The never-ending hole from space

Meteor Crater in Winslow, Arizona. (Image credit: Dale Nations, Northern Arizona University/Arizona Geological Survey)
Meteor Crater in Winslow, Arizona. (Image credit: Dale Nations, Northern Arizona University/Arizona Geological Survey)

Surprisingly, the massive, bowl-shaped Meteor Crater in Arizona, which originated some 50,000 years ago, continues to give fresh facts. Furthermore, it is a go-to location for training Artemis crews on how to explore the moon, much as it was for training Apollo astronauts for lunar missions in the 1960s.

According to David Kring, senior scientist of the Universities Space Research Association's Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, research payoffs from the out-of-this-world Meteor Crater are still ongoing. He has spent a decade conducting field training and research in Winslow, Arizona.

We normally have two to three projects going on at the crater each year, Kring added, with the research focusing on the deformation of the crater wall or assessing the apron of thrown-out material that surrounds the impact crater. Every year that we return, we map a new feature at the crater and fill in certain features that just do not exist anyplace else on Earth. The ejecta blanket covers an area roughly ten times that of the crater.

He stated that the asteroid that generated the feature was an iron meteorite of Type IAB, which was thought to be a remnant of an impact crater on an asteroid that subsequently came to Earth and fashioned another impact crater.

What is the real age of the crater, according to Kring? In fact, the uncertainty is increasing. Previously, three separate approaches yielded the same result, putting it at 50,000 years old. However, in recent years, we discovered that the calibration on two of those approaches had greater uncertainty than was previously recognized. There's a chance the crater is a few thousand years older than we've previously said. It is still the final glacial epic. It was during the time when mammoths and mastodons grazed in the region.

Kring and colleagues were able to recreate the flora at the moment of impact by recovering pollen from the lake sediments that filled Meteor Crater. Similarly, the impactor's bearing is yet unknown.

Kring stated, "I can build a case for practically every route, but I believe the majority of the data points north to south." The angle is most often 45 degrees, plus or minus a few degrees, to generate a nearly round or symmetrically-shaped crater. That is what we have.

Kring has taught both current and potential astronauts in Meteor Crater throughout the years. This builds on the legacy of late astrogeologist Eugene "Gene" Shoemaker of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and other geologists who taught Apollo-era astronauts how to "read" the lunar surface.

He said that we do their initial training near the crater. If we are to effectively conduct Artemis trips, I believe we need more advanced training at Meteor Crater and other impact sites. The first rationale for training at impact sites like Meteor Crater is to expose astronauts to the sort of terrain in which they would operate safely. I believe that the best tool we can deploy on the lunar surface is a well-trained astronaut. We want them to be as productive as possible in achieving the research and exploratory goals. Understanding impact cratering, the mechanisms involved, and how they transfer material throughout the lunar surface... training is required. I've also mentioned that the greatest spectrometers in the world are the eyes of well-trained astronauts.

As spectacular as Meteor Crater is in and of itself, Kring invites future moonwalkers to stand on its rim and gape, but then to turn around and picture another crater to the left, and a third crater to the right. That is the sort of landscape we are expecting them to explore and comprehend in order for them to be productive on the lunar surface.

Meteor Crater investigator Dan Durda, a senior research scientist at Southwest Investigation Institute in Boulder, Colorado, stated that there is still much more research to be done. Meteor Crater is a great metaphor for our lunar adventure. It is still the most recent and well-preserved crater on the planet.

To understand the process of impact cratering, excavation, and ejecta deposits, he recalls Gene Shoemaker's work at Meteor Crater.

According to Durda, the identifiers are readily available and visible. It's the ideal training environment for showing those procedures to field astronauts so they understand what they're doing on the moon.

But there's another important message coming from Meteor Crater.

According to Durda, it is putting the entire near-Earth impact threat to the forefront. Years ago, we had to get past the chuckle factor. Meteor Crater has served to demonstrate the destruction that may be caused by even a little impactor.

Durda has visited Meteor Crater several times. But his first visit to the site was in 1991, when he was a Ph.D. student in Florida on his first journey west.

Durda stated, "My first encounter with the crater was seeing it on television as a child." I was attracted by this 'geologist man who kept talking about this crater' while watching National Geographic broadcasts. He had a rifle and demonstrated how to blast a bullet into the sand, which is how the crater was created. Gene Shoemaker was the guy in question. Gene was the boss... And my first visit to the crater was with Gene! You couldn't reasonably be with him and not be thrilled about geology with Shoemaker by his side. He exhibited a contagious zeal for what he was doing.

Durda's mind and eyes on that first visit: "Oh my goodness. This is a large, deep hole in the ground. It's incredible." Shoemaker and Durda traveled down the "Astronaut Trail" together, making field stops along the way to discuss features of the impact strata and eventually down to the crater's bottom.

According to Durda, the true view, impression, awe, and grandeur are up on the rim, gazing out, across, and down.

Meteor Crater provides yet another extraterrestrial gift. Durda belongs to the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA).

He stated, meteor. The crater is more than a scientific metaphor. It's not merely an analogy for exploration. It's a visual analog for artists to employ while portraying the tale of other places in the solar system.

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