In the broadest sense, the term impact crater can be applied to any depression, natural or manmade, resulting from the high velocity impact of a projectile with a larger body. In most common usage, the term is used for the approximately circular depression in the surface of a planet, moon or other solid body in the Solar System, formed by the hypervelocity impact of a smaller body with the surface. In contrast to volcanic craters, which result from explosion or internal collapse, impact craters typically have raised rims and floors that are lower in elevation than the surrounding terrain. Impact craters range from small, simple, bowl-shaped depressions to large, complex, multi-ringed impact basins. Meteor Crater is perhaps the best-known example of a small impact crater on the Earth.
Impact craters are the dominant landforms on many solid Solar System objects including the Moon, Mercury, Callisto, Ganymede and most small moons and asteroids. On other planets and moons that experience more-active surface geological processes, such as Earth, Venus, Mars, Europa, Io and Titan, visible impact craters are less common because they become eroded, buried or transformed by tectonics over time. Where such processes have destroyed most of the original crater topography, the terms impact structure or astrobleme are more commonly used. In early literature, before the significance of impact cratering was widely recognised, the terms cryptoexplosion or cryptovolcanic structure were often used to describe what are now recognised as impact-related features on Earth.
In the early Solar System, rates of impact cratering were much higher than today. The large multi-ringed impact basins, with diameters of hundreds of kilometers or more, retained for example on Mercury and the Moon, record a period of intense early bombardment in the inner Solar System that ended about 3.8 billion years ago. Since that time, the rate of crater production on Earth has been considerably lower, but it is appreciable nonetheless; Earth experiences from one to three impacts large enough to produce a 20 km diameter crater about once every million years on average. This indicates that there should be far more relatively young craters on the planet than have been discovered so far.
Although the Earth’s active surface processes quickly destroy the impact record, about 170 terrestrial impact craters have been identified. These range in diameter from a few tens of meters up to about 300 km, and they range in age from recent times (e.g. the Sikhote-Alin craters in Russia whose creation were witnessed in 1947) to more than two billion years, though most are less than 500 million years old because geological processes tend to obliterate older craters. They are also selectively found in the stable interior regions of continents. Few undersea craters have been discovered because of the difficulty of surveying the sea floor, the rapid rate of change of the ocean bottom, and the subduction of the ocean floor into the Earth's interior by processes of plate tectonics.
Full article ▸