September 12, 2014

Random Acts… Meteor Crater offers out of this world experience

Posted in Travel at 12:54 am by dinaheng

Most of us will never get to walk on the surface of the moon, but if you want to see what an impact crater looks like, the world’s best-preserved site is at Meteor Crater, 35 miles east of Flagstaff, Ariz.

The giant bowl-shaped hole in the ground was created 50,000 years ago when an iron-nickel meteorite (or cluster of meteorites) hit the Earth, carving a crater 700 feet deep and more than 4,000 feet across. That’s about the size of a 60-story building deep and 20 football fields across.Dinah Eng

While tourists may flock to the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater is a designated National Landmark that is easily overlooked by those who are not in the know.

“It’s a spectacular place,” says Dr. David Kring, principal investigator of the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration in Houston, who named the Chicxulub Crater that’s been linked to the mass extinction of dinosaurs on Earth more than 65 million years ago.

Kring says Meteor Crater is a relatively young crater, at 50,000 years old, that has been preserved in an arid region where little rain falls, preventing soil erosion.

“We use it to train planetary scientists and astronauts,” explains Kring, who goes out to the crater several times a year. “We’ll be there throughout the month of October with a group of graduate students to do training in the field and research.

“We oftentimes want to compare and contrast what we can see on the moon with samples from craters made by these types of impacts, which also have biologic consequences on Earth. Humans are part of the biology of the planet, and there will still be impacts like Meteor Crater, which is at the small end of the scale, that are likely to occur in the future.”

In other words, when the next big meteorite hits, the strike could have the capacity to destroy an area the size of Kansas City. The meteorite impact would also produce a shock wave and air blast that would radiate out at least 20 kilometers in all directions, which could knock down buildings or destroy animal life.

Meteor Crater. Photo by Dinah Eng

Meteor Crater. Photo by Dinah Eng

The scientist notes that the Earth’s atmosphere protects the planet from small impact incidents, but meteorites do continue to hit the planet five to 10 times a year, with two to three fist-size meteorites falling every year in Arizona.

“Impact craters occur once per 6,000 years on the Earth,” Kring says. “It’s once per 100 million years for the dinosaur-killing size event.”

Beyond the impact of space rocks hitting Earth, scientists are using research at Meteor Crater to help prepare for future journeys into space.

“On the moon, the Apollo astronauts had only minutes to research the lunar samples,” says Kring, who notes that many other nations in the world have named the moon as their next destination. “Both the Chinese and Russians have said they’re going to put their own explorers on the lunar surface.

“Missions to Mars are not easy or inexpensive. In my opinion, there’s no way to do that without exploring our own moon first. It has a better geologic history than Mars for understanding our own solar system. We have to train a new generation of engineers and scientists, and the moon is only three days away.”

Kring notes that since the end of the Apollo missions, most of the nation’s space activities have been limited to work on the International Space Station. But with the development of Orion, NASA’s next exploration spacecraft, “we’re looking forward to human exploration of the moon in a decade,” he says. “We’re actively studying landing sites on the moon, and testing equipment, like a new lunar rover. The long-term objective is going to the moon and beyond.”

Having Meteor Crater as a research site and training ground is an invaluable resource in that effort.

Meteor Crater is privately owned by the Barringer Crater Company, which was founded by Daniel Moreau Barringer, a Philadelphia mining engineer who believed that the crater was formed by the impact of a large iron meteorite. The family has dedicated itself to maintaining the scientific integrity of the site, and awards four to five grants to students doing impact crater research each year. For information on how to visit Meteor Crater, see