Counting Craters

In the sky this week…

  • Jupiter lies low but is still conspicuous in the south-western sky in the evenings. Uranus still lies very close to Jupiter.
  • Saturn rises around midnight, and Venus around 5 a.m.
  • The Moon will reach Last Quarter on the January 26.

Ken Tapping, January 26, 2011

If we look at any body in the Solar System, one with a visible surface, we can see craters. These circular depressions are the relics of high-speed impacts by objects from space. We see them on Earth too, but erosion and plate tectonics have erased many of them. Craters are also evidence of the process of world-building, where large bodies grow from the accretion of many smaller ones. If you want to see some for yourself, on the next clear night where the Moon is in the sky, get out your telescope or binoculars.

The Moon’s surface is divided between light areas, which are heavily cratered, and dark areas, which are less cratered. There are a few large craters where the impacts threw out rays of ejected material splattering out over the lunar surface for many kilometres. A good example is Tycho, located in the lunar Southern Hemisphere. As you might imagine, these interesting landmarks have been attracting a lot of scientific interest ever since Galileo pointed his telescope at the Moon. Much of this research has involved careful study of individual craters, high-energy impact experiments in the laboratory, and computer modelling. However, we can learn a lot just by counting them.

Skygazing by Ken Tapping

Imagine a featureless, smooth planet which comes under bombardment from meteoric bodies and asteroids. As this barrage proceeds, more and more of the planet’s surface will become cratered, until eventually almost all the new impacts fall on top of old ones, and the total number of observable craters more or less stops growing. The surface of the planet is now termed “saturated.”

When we look at the Moon, we see that the light-coloured areas are well-saturated with craters, but the dark areas are definitely not. Obviously something happened in the Moon’s past that attributed to the formation of a brand new surface, like huge lava flows that erased or drowned out large areas. The rock samples brought back from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts show that the light areas are up to 4.5 billion years old, dating back to when the Moon first solidified. The darker areas are younger, averaging about 3 billion years. Evidently, most of the impacts associated with world building happened in the first billion years. If we assume that the bodies producing the impacts date back to the formation of the Solar System, some 4.5 billion years ago, and that these bodies have been progressively swept up, we can make the estimate a bit better. It looks as though the bombardment was particularly savage for the first 500 million years, which must have been the main construction phase for the Solar System. After that things became more peaceful, making it possible for life to develop and evolve. However, there are still some big lumps of stuff orbiting out there. Tycho was made by an impact that occurred about 65 million years ago, and is believed to have been caused by a partner asteroid fragment to the one that hit the Yucatan peninsula and contributed to a mass extinction of life here on Earth. The dinosaurs are among the more well-known victims. Planet building is not over yet, whether we like it or not.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355

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