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Impact Cratering Lab

The Impact Cratering Lab exercises found on this website introduce a geologic process that has had major consequences for the geology of all solid bodies in the solar system and for the biology of Earth. It is becoming the focus of interest for scientists in many fields including physics, geology, and biology. The exercises found on this website introduce the fundamental concepts of impact cratering including cratering mechanics, crater morphology, and crater ejecta. These exercises also introduce basic image processing techniques.

The image processing software used in these activities is ImageJ. ImageJ is a public domain, Java-based image processing program inspired by NIH Image for the Macintosh. (If you do not have Java installed on your computer you can download it here for free.) ImageJ can display, edit, analyze, process, and print 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit images. It can read many image formats including TIFF, GIF, JPEG, BMP, DICOM, FITS, and "raw". If you are not familiar with ImageJ, or NIH Image, it is recommended that you work through the Quick Tutorial for Using ImageJ before continuing to the Impact Cratering Lab activities. *NOTE: The ImageJ software does NOT need to be downloaded separately. The ImageJ software will automatically open with the images in the activities sections.

For High School Teachers

Though the Impact Cratering Lab has been used extensively in undergraduate courses, it is also appropriate for advanced high school students. These laboratory exercises can be integrated into a planetary geology unit or can stand alone as a way to illustrate physical concepts such as forces and energy.

The Impact Cratering Lab aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards:

Disciplinary Core Ideas: PS3.A: Definitions of Energy

  • Motion energy is properly called kinetic energy; it is proportional to
    the mass of the moving object and grows with the square of its speed.

Nature of Science: Scientific Investigations Use a Variety of Methods

  • Science investigations use a variety of methods and tools to make measurements and observations.
  • Scientific inquiry is characterized by a common set of values that include: logical thinking, precision, open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism, replicability of results, and honest and ethical reporting
    of findings.               

Science and Engineering Practices: Analyzing and Interpreting Data

  • Represent data in tables and/or various graphical displays (bar graphs, pictographs and/or pie charts) to reveal patterns that indicate relationships.
  • Compare and contrast data collected by different groups in order to discuss similarities and differences in their findings.
  • Consider limitations of data analysis (e.g., measurement error, sample selection) when analyzing and interpreting data.

Science and Engineering Practices: Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

  • Apply mathematical concepts and/or processes (e.g., ratio, rate, percent, basic operations, simple algebra) to scientific and engineering questions and problems.

For University Instructors

This laboratory has been successfully used in undergraduate classes for non-science majors and in upper division classes for science majors. 

crater 302 on the MoonThe ancient highlands of the Moon are heavily cratered. This oblique view featuring the 160 km-wide Keeler Crater (background, right) on the Moon’s surface was photographed by the Apollo 10 astronauts in May of 1969. Note the terraced walls of the crater and central cone. Several smaller simple craters dot the landscape, both within and adjacent to Keeler Crater. NASA Image AS10-32-4823

Background Materials and Exercises

Quick Tutorial for Using ImageJ

Part 1 Background: Impact Cratering Mechanics and Crater Morphology

Part 1 Exercises: Impact Cratering Mechanics and Crater Morphology

Part 2 Background: Features and Motion of Crater Ejecta

Part 2 Exercises: Features and Motion of Crater Ejecta

After completing the laboratory exercises, students who are interested in calculating the sizes of impact craters on the Moon that are produced by asteroids might want to use the Lunar Impact Cratering tool.