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15. Make a Crater


To determine the factors affecting the appearance of impact craters and ejecta.


The circular features so obvious on the Moon's surface are impact craters formed when impactors smashed into the surface. The explosion and excavation of materials at the impacted site created piles of rock (called ejecta) around the circular hole as well as bright streaks of target material (called rays) thrown for great distances.

Two basic methods that form craters in nature are: 1) impact of a projectile on the surface and 2) collapse of the top of a volcano creating a crater termed caldera. By studying all types of craters on Earth and by creating impact craters in experimental laboratories, geologists concluded that the Moon's craters are impact in origin. The factors affecting the appearance of impact craters and ejecta are the size and velocity of the impactor, and the geology of the target surface.

By recording the number, size, and extent of erosion of craters, lunar geologists can determine the ages of different surface units on the Moon and can piece together the geologic history. This technique works because older surfaces are exposed to impacting meteorites for a longer period of time than are younger surfaces. Impact craters are not unique to the Moon. They are found on all the terrestrial planets and on many moons of the outer planets.

On Earth, impact craters are not as easily recognized because of weathering and erosion. Famous impact craters on Earth are Meteor Crater in Arizona, U.S.A.; Manicouagan in Quebec, Canada; Sudbury in Ontario, Canada; Ries Crater in Germany, and Chicxulub on the Yucatan coast in Mexico. Chicxulub is considered by most scientists as the source crater of the catastrophe that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. An interesting fact about the Chicxulub crater is that you cannot see it. Its circular structure is nearly a kilometer below the surface and was originally identified from magnetic and gravity data.

This Activity

In this activity, marbles or other spheres such as steel shot, ball bearings, or golf balls are used as impactors that students drop from a series of heights onto a prepared "lunar surface." Using impactors of different mass dropped from the same height will allow students to study the relationship of mass of the impactor to crater size. Dropping impactors from different heights will allow students to study the relationship of velocity of the impactor to crater size.


Review and prepare materials listed on the student sheet. The following materials work well as a base for the "lunar surface." Dust with a topping of dry tempera paint, powdered drink mixes glitter or other dry material in a contrasting color. Use a sieve, screen , or flour sifter. Choose a color that contrasts with the base materials for most striking results. All purpose flour (reusable in this activity and keeps well in a covered container); Baking soda (it can be recycled for use in the lava layering activity or for many other science activities). Reusable in this activity, even if colored, by adding a clean layer of new white baking soda on top. Keeps indefinitely in a covered container. Baking soda mixed (1:1) with table salt also works. Corn meal (reusable in this activity but probably not recyclable. Keeps only in freezer in airtight container.). Sand and corn starch mixed (1:1), sand must be very dry. Keeps only in freezer in airtight container. Pans should be plastic, aluminum, or cardboard. Do not use glass. They should be at least 7.5 cm deep. Basic 10"x12" aluminum pans or plastic tubs work fine, but the larger the better to avoid misses. Also, a larger pan may allow students to drop more marbles before having to resurface and smooth the target materials. A reproducible student "Data Chart" is included; students will need a separate chart for each impactor used in the activity.

Get activity 15 in a PDF file, requires Acrobat Reader.

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