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Meteorite Craters

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CRADLES OF LIFE

Vital to planetary studies, meteorite craters also inform our view of life on Earth

One of the most fascinating aspects of planetary science is the number of geographical features shared by Earth and its sibling planets in our galaxy and beyond. Like our own, other planets have oceans, mountains, valleys, and even craters, which we associate with meteorites. Experts in geography define craters as “bowl-like depressions,” caused by violent collisions between celestial bodies or from volcanic eruptions.

Meteorite impact craters are important to researchers studying how planets and galaxies are formed. For example, they can tell scientists the approximate weight of the impactor and about how fast it was coming in. Craters can also reveal a lot about how old a planetary body is; the Moon, for example, has many “astroblemes”—meaning “star wounds”—across the central part of its farside, which is an indicator that region is older than the Moon’s smoother areas with fewer craters.

Craters also naturally excavate into the body’s crust and can provide scientists with primitive core samples and clues about the planet’s structure. Massive meteorites that hit the surface of Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons), for example, left large craters that punched through enough of the moon’s crust that researchers were able to estimate the depth of its ice shell. Further, data about the diameter and depth of the craters on Europa also clued scientists into the possibility of an ocean or warm ice layer below the ice shell.

As much as craters can tell us about a planet’s past, they are also useful as sites to further our ambitions for the future. The floor of Barringer Crater, also called “Meteor Crater” or the “Canyon Diablo Crater,” served as a training ground for NASA astronauts preparing for the Apollo missions; there, the future moonwalkers learned how to hunt for “faux moon rocks.” These return samples have been indispensable to analysts identifying lunar meteorites and

some researchers even believe a rock sample from the Apollo 14 mission may contain the first evidence of Earth material—a meteorite originating from Earth—on the Moon.

Impressive as craters may be, they too fall victim to weathering by Earth’s climate. The Wabar Craters, for example, lie in a now inaccessible desert region of Saudi Arabia and remain a mystery to the meteorite community for many reasons. First, the crater site is located in a now extremely dangerous area; political events, temperatures that can top 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and the terrain all contribute to the scarcity of Wabar material. Second, shifting sands have all but obliterated the craters, as the sand has slowly filled them over time. Finally, the material recovered from the Wabar crater site is a blend of both weathered and well-preserved irons. How the two could have been produced by the same source and lie in the same site still puzzles scientists today.

One thing, however, is certain: craters hold the key to understanding what happens when something from an alien world collides with another. Asteroids have destroyed life while also creating new environments for microbes and bacteria. On Earth, some people have made craters their home, like the city of Nördlingen, which was built inside the Nördlinger Ries impact crater in Germany. Looking forward, missions to the Moon and Mars will investigate what secrets their craters hold, which will inform how we explore–and eventually settle–our solar system and beyond.

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SLS, Rockets, and Meteorites

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BACK TO THE MOON

A static test launch in preparation for the Moon…and beyond

It’s been nearly 50 years since the last time a human being visited the Moon; on December 1972, NASA astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission conducted geological surveys and sampling of the Moon’s surface features and materials. The crew also performed experiments both in-flight and during EVAs (Extravehicular Activity). Despite the mission’s success, the remaining Apollo missions were cancelled due to budgetary constraints and NASA’s shift of focus to other missions and spacecraft. The Moon has remained untouched by humans since then, but it won’t be for long. Rest assured, “We are going to the Moon,” in the confident words of NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Following the Space Shuttle program, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) has been in development since 2011; its purpose is to provide a vehicle for NASA’s deep space exploration missions, which include flights to the Moon and Mars. Eventually, as humans develop plans for the exploration and development of space, SLS will evolve to fulfill the growing need for more powerful and capable configurations. Currently, SLS has has three variants—Block 1, Block 1B, and Block 2—that can be used in several configurations to accommodate the rocket’s payload and the thrust required for the mission.

NASA’s announcement of a static fire test, scheduled for Wednesday, September 2, is welcome news amid serious delays and setbacks that have plagued the development of the rocket platform. The test will take place at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Utah, United States and “will help teams evaluate potential new materials, processes, and improvements for the boosters that will power deep space missions beyond Artemis III,” according to NASA. Artemis III will be the third flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft launched on SLS and will be their first crewed lunar landing since 1972 and—perhaps even more importantly—the first mission where a woman will set foot on the Moon.

The Artemis III crew will be testing lunar water ice, a follow-up to experiments conducted during the Apollo 17 mission, where astronauts collected nearly 260 pounds of samples of lunar surface material. These “Moon rocks,” as they’re called, are not to be confused with lunar meteorites, which arrive on Earth after being catapulted into space from the Moon’s surface by some sort of collision. As many meteorite collectors know, it’s very illegal to own or sell Apollo return samples, though it’s thanks to these “Moon rocks” that we can positively identify lunar meteorites found on Earth. Not only that, but petrological analyses of the Apollo return samples and positively identified lunar meteorites can give us an idea of where on the Moon these meteorites may have originated.

The Apollo missions and upcoming Orion missions illustrate how meteorites impact academia and scientific research; studies of oriented meteorites aerodynamics even reveal how similar these rocks’ nosecones are to those we see on aircraft and rockets, like SLS. With the rapid advances the scientific community is making in technology, we can expect to learn a lot more about meteorites, asteroids, and our place in our universe.

Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

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