Meteorite Craters as Measures of Geologic Activity

A common misconception is that Earth has very few impact craters on its surface because its atmosphere is an effective shield against meteoroids. Earth's atmosphere certainly slows and prevents typical asteroidal fragments up to a few tens of metres across from reaching the surface and forming a true hypervelocity impact crater, but kilometre-scale objects of the kind that created the smallest tele-scopically visible craters on the Moon are not significantly slowed by Earth's atmosphere. The Moon and Earth certainly experienced similar numbers of these larger impact events, but on Earth subsequent geologic processes (e.g., volcanism and plate tectonic processes) completely eliminated or severely degraded the craters. The dominant role of erosion as a geologic process that destroys craters is unique to Earth among the solid bodies that have been well-studied. Erosional processes may be important in eliminating craters on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, if methane proves to play the role there that water does in Earth's hydro-logic cycle. Elsewhere only volcanic and tectonic processes are capable of eliminating large meteorite craters.

An absence or sparseness of craters in a given region of a large solid body indicates that relatively recent geologic activity has resurfaced it or otherwise greatly altered its surface appearance. For example, on the Moon the dark mare regions are much less heavily cratered than the light highland areas because the mare were flooded by basaltic volcanic flows about one billion years after formation of the highland areas. From simple counts of the craters larger than a given size per unit area for different regions of a body, it is possible to determine relative surface ages of different regions in order to gain insight into a body's geologic history. For the Moon absolute ages can be assigned to regions with different numbers of craters per unit area because surface samples from several regions were collected during Apollo lunar landing missions and dated in laboratories on Earth.

For other large bodies, assigning absolute ages to given regions based on the number of craters is based on estimates of asteroidal and cometary impact rates, the size range of those objects, and the size of the crater that forms from a given impacting object. Very little data exist as a basis for these estimates, particularly for impact rates. Absolute ages determined for planetary surfaces other than the Moon consequently have large uncertainties relative to the age of the solar system.

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