navigation image mapnext pagetable of contentsprevious page

We look at more aerial and space images of impact craters in Kazahkstan and Brazil, including information brought to light by computer enhancement. A detailed study by Dr. James Garvin of NASA Goddard of the classic Meteor Crater, Arizona using image processing gives a better picture of the ejecta blanket around this 50000 year old impact.

Most impact structures have been moderately to severely eroded so that their crater rim morphology is no longer a strong clue to their presence and nature. Worn-down craters are sometimes referred to as astroblemes (literally, "star wounds"). Detection in space images is therefore difficult; breccias with associated shock metamorphic features are then the best indicators. Still, processed imagery can reveal signs of an astrobleme (sometimes drainage will adjust to the underlying structure, with a tendency towards circularity). A relatively young ( 900,000 years) impact crater, the Zhamanshin structure (13 km; 8 miles) in Kazahkstan, is a case in point. Examine first this Landsat false color composite; you may be hard-pressed to find the actual crater, for, despite its youth, it has been severely eroded.

Landsat enhanced color composite of the Zhamanshin structure in Kazakhstan, southern Asia; the crater, eroded so that the rim is gone, is hard to see in the image but there is a crude circularity still as a remnant.

This next image of Zhamanshin was generated from all non-thermal Landsat TM bands regrouped into Principal Components. Shown above are Components 2, 3, and 4 in Red, Green, and Blue

A Principal Components image of the Zhamanshin structure, based on Landsat TM bands, improves the definition of the central crater.

18-16: Using the Principal Components image, locate (approximately) the apparent boundary (eroded rim segment) of the Zhamanshin impact structure (now an astrobleme). ANSWER

Several South American impact structures have a tie-in with Landsat. A crater in Brazil named Araguainha had earlier been studied and classified as a dome. But when visited by Dr. Robert S. Dietz - reknown for his ability to find new craters - evidence (shatter cones and breccias) was found that pointed towards an impact origin. Samples were sent to Dr. Bevan M. French, a colleague, to search for shock metamorphic features. On the very same day he confirmed their presence, the writer (NMS) phoned him to say that I had found the following Landsat image, shown here as a subscene:

Landsat MSS subscene in which the circularity of the eroded Araguainha impact structure in the Brazilian Pampas is evident.

What we learned from the image was that the crater structure was about twice as wide (40 km; 25 miles) as field studies had suggested.The several tonal bands are due to differences in vegetation in this pampas grass country.

The hunt pressed on to find other craters in vegetated Brazil. Landsat was instrumental in finding this 12 km (8 mile) structure, Serra da Cangalha, with its central depression.

Landsat image of the Serra da Cangalha impact structure in Brazil; the Riochao structure is shown in the inset.

Then more looking turned up a smaller crater (4 km), Riachao, about 50 km to the northwest. It is shown as the inset in the above image. An aerial photo taken of it later gives details about its appearance:

Aerial photo of the Riochao structure in Brazil.

After being visited and sampled, both structures yielded evidence of shock metamorphism, putting them squarely in the impact camp.

Still another impact structure, the Ituralde crater (8 km; 5 mile diameter) was discovered from space just within the rain forest in eastern Bolivia:

The Ituralde crater in Bolivia; photo from the International Space Station.

Another discovery attributed directly to examination of space imagery is the Kara-Kul structure in the mountains of Tajikistan (central Asia). In this Landsat-7 image, look carefully around the two central lakes and you should see subtle evidence of a rim. The structure's size is about 45 km (28 miles) in diameter. Shock features have been found in surface rocks, verifying an impact identity.

Landsat-7 image of the Kara-Kul impact structure in Tajikistan.

The best known crater in India, Lonar Lake, was closely studied prior to the Apollo landings because it formed in basalt, the rock type expected in the lunar lowlands. About 1.8 km wide, it appears young (actual age estimated to be about 50000 year old when the impact struck the Deccan Plateau east of Bombay):

Lonar Lake crater in India

Ground view of Lonar Lake

Elsewhere in India is the Ranghar impact crater, recognized from space by a central uplift ring similar to Gosses Bluff.

Ranghar crater, first identified from its central peak ring

We close with a look at the most famous impact crater on Earth, Meteor Crater (also called Barringer Crater after the family who owns it), a 50000 year old depression cut into the flat-lying sedimentary layers below the surface of the Colorado Plateau some 73 km (45 miles) east of Flagstaff, Arizona. An aerial oblique view of this 1230 m (4000 ft) wide crater shows its freshness (pieces of the iron meteorite that caused it can still be found in the ejecta); the road allows thousands of tourists traveling along Interstate 40 to visit its overlook and museum.

Color aerial oblique photograph of Meteor Crater, Arizona.

The flat interior floor, without a central peak, is a characteristic of simple craters; Meteor Crater's outline tends towards a square shape - this departure from circularity is controlled by the dominant set of two orthogonal joints (planar fractures) that run through the layers; and the ejecta deposits outside the rim still retain a hummocky (mound-like) topography. A ground photo from its rim 185 m (600 ft) above the floor gives a sense of its grandiose size; note the displaced (fault-bounded) blocks under the rim in both aerial and ground photos.

Ground phototgraph from the rim of Meteor Crater looking down at the floor of the crater.

Field study of Meteor Crater in the late 1950s by Eugene Shoemaker and its shocked rocks shortly thereafter by Edward Chao led to the first modern concepts of impact crater mechanics. The SiO2 morph Coesite was first discovered in impact structures at this crater.

A specially processed image made by the airborne Thematic Mapper Simulator (TMS) shows that the ejecta blanket or apron (in reds and yellows) around Meteor Crater is asymmetrically distributed with maximum extension to the northeast. There is a notable tendency for the ejecta deposits to appear elongated to the northeast; this may be mainly an effect of wind-blown re-working rather than impact angle. The ejecta contain fragments of the iron meteorite which caused Meteor Crater., along with iron melt spherules. The red and blue lines are power lines and roadways.

 False color image of Meteor Crater, made by the airborne TMS sensor (JPL).

18-17: Assuming the ejecta blanket pattern is not principally a wind phenomenon and instead is the result of ejecta being tossed out preferentially in one general direction owing to the meteorite coming in at a low angle, from what direction did the bolide come? What is peculiar about the crater outline? What might explain the tiny round depression near the left bottom of the image? What could the long straight red line be? ANSWER

A thermal multiband color image made (courtesy: Dr. J. Garvin) from the airborne TIMS (Thermal Infrared Multispectral Scanner) sensor divulges the expression of this ejecta, with reds and some yellow corresponding largely to Moenkopi Siltstone and Coconino Sandstone (whose spectral properties in the ejecta are influenced by their particulate nature and, possibly, by shock effects) and the blue-greens to the overlying Kaibab Limestone.

False color image of Meteor Crater, from thermal bands on JPL’s  airborne TIMS.

What are your chances of being killed from an impact event? Very small, but not zero. A small cometary body exploded (estimated between 10 and 100 megatons) over the Tunguska region in Siberia in 1908 and an iron meteorite made a 30 m [100 ft] crater in Siberia in 1947. Meteor Crater formed not long before North America was settled. Impacting bodies that form 20 km wide craters strike Earth at a frequency of only once every few million years (the Zhamanshin structure in southern Russia 13.4 km [7.5 mile] diameter is less than 900000 years old and an 8 km crater in Bolivia may be much younger). A Chicxulub-sized collision, capable of destroying much of life 65 m.y. ago through a "nuclear winter" type calamity and thus likely to be fatal to humans, is expected about once every 100 m.y. A strike on land would be devastating but if an asteroid hits in a ocean (70% chance), the number of people living along coastlines of that sea could die by the millions from the tsunami-like waves (which could be a mile high).

The now famous multiple impacts of the Shoemaker-Levy comet into Jupiter in 1993 (Section 19, page 19-23) proves convincingly that planets are targets of big hits that have occurred in the past, and will again, during the brief historical span (a few thousand years) when Man has recorded such dramatic events. And there are many thousands of larger asteroids and comets still out there, many not yet found and some destined to pass us nearby. (A paper given in May 1997 by Dr. Louis Frank of the University of Iowa reports on observations made by NASA's Polar satellite that comets in the range of 40 metric tons or less strike the Earth's atmosphere hundreds of times each day; these water-rich bodies may be responsible for significant original deposition and subsequent additions of water in the Earth's oceans.) At present there is no sure defense against these extraterrestrial invaders that would certainly wreak catastrophic havoc on Earth. Pleasant dreams!

18-18: Put your imagination in high gear and think of ways to avoid the potential catastrophe of an asteroid striking the Earth. Draw on your movie experience if you wish. ANSWER

This Section, along with the last on Geomorphology, in which several of many scientific uses of space imagery have been demonstrated as adding valuable new information, are good prologues to another of the major applications of remote sensing from spacecraft: The exploration of the planets to be reviewed in the next Section, again with the role of landforms analysis in characterizing surfaces being an integral part of interpretation procedures.

navigation image mapnext pageprevious page

Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email: