Crater Orgins

Barry Setterfield

July 28, 2012

While we were working on the astronomy lesson on the Moon, Barry could not find some illustrations or photographs he wanted on the net, so he set up a series of experiments in our garage so he could photograph some results of impacts in crater formation. He used cement powder and plaster of Paris powder for contrast. Some of what happened surprised him and the results are what follows.


Two Types of Craters

Apart from volcanism, there are two processes whereby craters can be formed.  The best known is from an asteroid or comet impact.  The other way, and one that is currently under a lot of study, is through Electric Discharge Machining (EDM). Experimental work done in the laboratory can help distinguish the difference in the craters formed by the two methods. CJ Ransom of the Vemasat Laboratories has produced a variety of craters which have been electrically formed.

EDM crater 1

Figure I: Crater formed by Electric Discharge Machining with a flat floor and vertical walls. A rim of debris is evident

These electrically machined craters tend to have flat floors and more or less vertical walls, which may or may not have a rim made up of debris. The example in Figure I may be compared with many craters on Mars, such as those in Figure II, or Mercury in Figure III.

Mars Crater 1

Figure II: Craters on Mars with characteristics very similar to those formed in the laboratory by electrical means.

Mercury craters 1

Figure III: Flat-floored craters on Mercury. The crater walls tend to be more or less vertical. These characteristics are typical of EDM craters.

Figures IV and V provide other examples of craters formed by Electric Discharge Machining. A comparison can be made with craters on Mars, Venus and Mercury.

EDM2 Mars2

Figure IV: Left – laboratory craters (some with central peaks) from electric discharge machining. Note that the ground is discolored where the discharge was strongest. Right – Similar craters on Mars: many with flat floors, a feature which is difficult to reproduce by impact.  

EDMsand EDMsteel

Figure V: Left - Electric discharge craters in sand with both flat and bowl-shaped floors. Right – EDM crater in steel, which also has a central peak.

Craters which have been formed by electrical methods can occur singly or in multiples and can often overlap. However, fragmentation of an asteroid before it hits will also reproduce some of these features.  So, too, will a swarm of smaller bodies accompanying the larger asteroid on its path to destruction. These swarms of asteroidal material are common in space. Their impact conditions can be reproduced in laboratory experiments using a “meteorite” that comprises a dessert-spoon or table-spoon of slightly compressed, dry cement dust. It is dropped from a height of 4 feet into a pan of dry, unconsolidated, cement dust about 6 inches deep whose surface has been very lightly tooled with a cement worker’s metal float.  An example of craters left by a cement dust “meteorite” which broke up in flight is given in Figure VI.

Cement dust is used to simulate impact craters because in any such collision, with speeds of up to 45 miles per second, any material is going to be pulverized whether it be soft pumice or alloy steel. So what is needed to reproduce these conditions is a material which has no tensile strength. There is such a material; it is dust. And for practical reasons, cement dust is used as it comes in uniform quality after all lumps have been screened out. All that is needed is one slightly consolidated “meteorite” of cement dust in a spoon, dropped into the pan of cement dust, and these are the results.

cement dust 1

Figure VI: An example of a cement dust impact crater in which the cement dust “meteorite” broke up before it hit the pan of cement dust. Splash craters and rays formed by the “impact” are also in evidence.

In these experiments, for both the electrically produced and the cement dust impact craters we get the single, the multiple, and the overlapping craters. Splash craters formed as a result of impact also have their counterparts in EDM craters. Figure VII shows a typical bowl-shaped crater, formed in the cement dust experiments. It is accompanied by the usual radiating ridges, rays and the suite of secondary splash craters.

cement dust 2

Figure VII: A typical bowl-shaped impact crater in the cement dust experiments. The usual entourage of radiating ridges, splash craters and rays has formed. The “meteorite” is a table-spoon of slightly consolidated cement dust. It is dropped from a height of about 4 feet into a pan of dry cement dust lightly tooled with a metal float. The ridge running down the middle is caused by the edge of the float. It was considered to be compressing the surface too much to tool the center strip again to remove the ridge.

Using cement dust, it frequently happens that limited chains of craters form along with the main crater. This can be seen in Figures VI and VII. It is also possible to have smaller craters form on the wall of the larger one, as in Figure VIII.

cement dust 3

Figure VIII: Rays, splash craters and crater chains are in evidence in this cement dust experiment. Importantly, so is a secondary crater on the bottom left part of the wall of the main crater. This secondary crater has a central peak. Again the ridge was left by the float.

Central peaks are obtained in cement dust experiments where there is an unyielding layer about 3 inches below the surface. This is achieved by using a flat tile or something similar. The typical results are in Figure IX.

cement dust 4

Figure IX: A cement dust crater with a prominent central peak, terraced walls and ridges radiating from the crater. It is accompanied by some large splash craters.

Figure IX should be compared with the craters on the Moon such as the two examples in Figure X.

moon 1


moon 2

Figure X: Two views of the far side of the Moon. Top is a general view of ancient craters with many splash craters, and smaller, more recent craters. Bottom is the crater Daedalus about 58 miles across with its wide ringwall showing clearly on its right hand side, along with terraces and central peaks.

From these examples, it can be seen both impacts and electrical machining can form bowl-shaped, or ‘simple’ craters, as well as ‘complex’ craters with central peaks and terraces, along with accompanying splash craters and secondary craters on the ring wall. 

However, there are ways in which bolide, or impact, craters and EDM craters can be distinguished from each other.  Electrically machined craters tend to have straight or vertical walls, flat floors and ejecta blankets which may be multiple or overlapping. Some examples of craters from Mars show the multiple ejecta blankets well, such as the Mars crater in Figure XI. In this example the ejecta blankets almost look like flow structures.  A single impact event cannot produce this.  However EDM can spread many layers of material while the process of forming the crater is in operation.  The multiple layers of material are involved in the ejecta blanket are evidence of electrical machining.


Figure XI: Un-named crater in Arabia Terra on Mars with multiple ejecta blankets. Ongoing EDM activity easily allows several blankets to form. 

This contrasts with impact craters which tend to have complex ridge and ray systems rather than ejecta blankets. These systems in the cement dust experiments shown here are intrinsic features of crater formation via impact. If a meteorite of compressed plaster of Paris powder is used, it is possible to discern where the rays and splash craters come from. Figure XII shows the result.

plaster of paris 1

Figure XII: A white, Plaster of Paris meteorite is used to show the distribution of material. While some fragments of the meteorite are exploded out, the majority is concentrated under the crater rim. Note radiating ridges

This gives us definite evidence of an impact meteorite.   When nickel-iron bodies, which are the remains of the impact material, are found under the rim, it is an impact structure.  This is also evidenced by shocked quartz, as it only forms under impact conditions.  It is debris from the surface layers at the explosion site that forms rays and splash craters.

The splash craters which formed as a result of the explosion on the impact model only have a small component of meteorite material. This is evident from Figure XIII left where a Plaster of Paris meteorite was again used and a close-up of one group of splash craters is given. Figure XIII right is a group of splash craters on a cement-dust surface that had not been smoothed. The formation of splash craters by impact seen in Figure XIII is similar to those seen on the Moon and Mercury. While this impact feature can also be reproduced by electric discharge machining of craters, the concurrent formation of radiating ridge and ray systems indicates impact, as EDM tends to form more uniform ejecta blankets. Let us examine these ray systems for a moment.

plaster 2 cement dust 5

Figure XIII: Splash craters from the impact experiments seen close-up. On the left, a white Plaster-of-Paris ‘meteorite’ was used. The result shows that the meteorite had little to do with the formation of the splash craters which largely resulted from the material expelled from the impact site. On the right, a cement dust meteorite was used on a surface that was not tooled smooth. Both scenes are typical of Lunar and Mercurian formations.

Crater Ray Systems
There are many ray systems on the Moon, such as those emanating from the craters Tycho and Copernicus. These ray systems are also present on other moons, Earth and Mercury. (We do not have the ability yet to see if any are visibly present on Venus, as most work has been done with radar which penetrates the clouds.) These ray systems have a bilateral symmetry typical of man-made explosion pits on Earth. The cement dust experiments also exhibit this bilateral symmetry.

However, many radial channels can also be produced around craters formed by EDM. Many also have a bilateral symmetry. Basically they are forms of Lichtenberg figures. These radial channels or grooves are associated with craters on both Mars and Venus, and probably Mercury.

lichtenberg acrylic lichtenberg Venus

Figure XIV : Lichtenberg figures formed by electrical interaction. Left – Lichtenberg figure in an acrylic sheet. Right – A radial Lichtenberg figure on Venus in the form of grooves which originate from a central object initially known as Mokos Nova but which is now called Ts’an Nu Mons.

lichtenberg Mars lichtenberg lab

Figure XV: Left - Lichtenberg figure on Mars the Tyrrhena Patera. There are a number of paterae in the Martian highlands. Right – similar figure produced by an electric discharge at the Vemasat Laboratories, Fort Worth, by Cj Ransom. These are obviously not impact related despite their symmetry

 It is apparent that these radial channels and grooves were made by EDM processes when the craters or other objects at their center were formed. But these radial channels or grooves are different from the fine lines of powdery material thrown out in narrow trajectories which comprise the ray systems of impact craters.


Figure XVI: The ray crater Tycho at bottom right with Copernicus at upper left. Tycho has the most prominent ray system on the Moon. Notice the crater itself is bright, but there is a dark, ray-free area circling the crater. This indicates an explosive origin for the rays. The ray material generated by the explosion had to clear the walls of the pit which created a shadow or ray-free area around the outside. If the crater had been electrically machined, the explanation for both the ray-shadow and the rays becomes difficult.

The crater Tycho, on our moon, gives evidence that the ray material was explosively expelled. First, there is the ray-free area around Tycho as discussed in Figure XVI. Second, in one case, the stream of ejecta appears to have partly gone into orbit, forming a ray which can be traced completely around the Moon. As it did so, the Moon rotated underneath the sub-orbital spray of ray material. Since the Moon was rotating on its axis during the time the ray was being formed, Tycho was displaced from the orbital plane of the material by 50 miles. This is the precise distance at which we find the end of the ray passing the crater itself.  EDM has not reproduced anything like this.

Types of Craters
Craters come in two main types; simple and complex. Simple craters are generally bowl-shaped with an uplifted rim. Complex craters have central peaks and terraced walls, as illustrated in Figure XVII. In some cases a “peaked ring” replaces the central peak complex. Actual examples are shown in Figure XVIII.

crater types

Figure XVII: The difference between simple and complex craters. The complex crater has a terraced ringwall and a central peak complex. In addition, the heat from the impact results in partial liquefaction of the pulverized material which then covers the bottom of the bowl as a flat area.

Mercury craters 2

Figure XVIII: Photograph of Mercury illustrating simple craters, complex craters with central peaks, and complex craters with a ‘peaked ring.’ Since the peaked ring category has broad, flat floors and vertical walls, this type is probably the result of electric machining. An EDM origin also explains the peaked ring.

Complex craters have central peaks. However, a study has shown that impact craters on the Moon can only form central peaks when the crater is in the size range of 15 to 80 miles across. From the cement dust experimental data, this may also be an indication of a very dense, solid layer at a depth of about 4 or 5 miles beneath the surface.  This may be evidence that the impacting material had to be large enough, and coming in at a high enough speed to penetrate deeply enough for this layer to rebound to form the central peak complex.

In contrast, EDM can form craters of any size with central peaks.  If the terraces drop vertically, and there is a basically flat floor with a ‘peaked ring’ rather than a central peak complex, the crater may well have been formed by EDM processes. Even detailed studies cannot show how impact scenarios can account for the peaked ring, as can be seen in Figure XVIII. There are many craters on Mercury and Mars in this peaked-ring category, which would indicate an electrical origin. However if the central peak is a single complex, and the crater has a ray system like Tycho or Copernicus, it is probably the result of impact.

Crater Features
Looking at our moon, it appears as though there are lines of cracks in a number of areas.  However, close examination reveals that some of these rille systems and fissures on both the Moon and Mars turn out to be chains of miniature craters with flat floors. The flat floors are a hallmark of EDM, particularly as some of the very small craters in the chains on both the Moon and Mars have central peaks. This is impossible to reproduce by impact so this is evidence that electrical interactions occurred to produce the rilles.

moon rille system

Rille system on the moon in Mare Orientalae

It should be noted that some craters, like Ptolemaeus, Archimedes or Plato on the Moon, have flat floors.  This is because the magma from the Lunar interior has flooded the crater bottom. The floor of the crater has the same color as the nearby Mare plain, as shown in Figure XIX. Grooves in the walls of some of these craters, carved by the flying debris on a pattern radial to the center of the Mare, indicate that these craters were there before the molten rock forming the Mare surface was extruded. The molten rock then flooded the floor of these craters.

Archimedes crater

Figure XIX: The crater Archimedes on the edge of Mare Imbrium. The molten rock forming the Mare also flooded the floor of the crater. As a result it need not be considered to be in the EDM ‘flat bottomed crater’ category.

There is another diagnostic feature which attests to the different crater origins. With an impact, the resulting explosion at depth forces the rock layers in the rim at the surface to be upturned and tilted back on themselves.  The sequence of events is displayed in Figure XX.

impact diagram

Figures XX: The explosive formation of craters by impact overturns the strata on the crater rim as shown above. The diagram below enlarges what happens. It can be seen that the rock layers on the rim are overturned and the rock sequence inverted a little distance from the crater.

ejecta overturn

Since the rock strata are turned back on themselves, the strata at the exposed rim will be vertical, not horizontal. In contrast, electrical machining would have carved down through the strata, leaving the sides basically horizontal. In this way, a close-up examination of any crater rim should allow us to tell which method formed the crater.

The two photos in Figure XXI, taken by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, are of the Victoria crater on Mars.  They show that the rim strata are horizontal right around the crater (top). The top photo is of Duck Bay in Victoria crater. The detail in the bottom photo, showing Cape St. Vincent on the rim of Victoria crater, shows that not only are the strata horizontal, but the layering in that strata is also horizontal. That is strong evidence that this particular crater originated from electric machining which cut down vertically through the strata and distributed the debris around the rim.

Victoria crater 1
Victoria Crater 2

Figure XXI: Victoria crater, on Mars. The rim strata are horizontal both on the large scale (top) and in the detail of the individual layers. Thus it was formed by EDM, not impact. Top - Duck Bay. Bottom - Cape St. Vincent.

Further evidence that the Victoria crater was electrically machined can be seen in Figure XXII. Again the horizontal rim strata are in evidence. However, there is another feature which is important to consider:  the scalloped edges to the crater rim.

Victoria 3

Figure XXII: Victoria crater from the HiRise satellite in Martian orbit. The path of Opportunity is traced along the crater rim. Note again the horizontal rim material. However, another diagnostic feature is the scalloped edges of the crater which is typical of electric machining processes. Here is final proof of the EDM origin of Victoria crater. The yellow bar gives the crater’s scale.

This is entirely consistent with the action of electric machining, and cannot be produced by an impact.  Because of all this evidence, it can be concluded that the Victoria crater on Mars was formed by electrical machining processes, not impact.

On a very large scale, there are huge circular structures like Mare Imbrium on the Moon, the Caloris Basin on Mercury, or the Hellas basin on Mars.

Mare Imbrium

Mare Imbrium outlined on the Moon

These vast circular plains, which have been covered with magma from the interior of the planetary body, have been shown to have some kind of massive body, referred to as a mass concentration or ‘mascon’ underneath the structure. The position of mascons on the Moon is shown in Figure XXIII.  (The right hand half of the image is the part of the Moon visible from the earth and the left hand side of the picture is the hidden side of the moon).  In this illustration it can be seen that the major Lunar Maria -- Imbrium, Serenetatis, Crisium, Smythii, Humboltianum, Humorum, and Nectaris -- all have positive mass concentrations. Mare Orientalae on the far side also has a small mascon associated with it. The other basins seem to have a mass deficit, or not massive body underneath,  as shown on the Moon’s hidden side. The mascons on Mercury are in Figure XXIV, while those for Mars are shown in Figure XXV.

moon mascons

Figure XXIII: Lunar mass concentrations (mascons, yellow) are associated with the basins forming the great plains, mainly on the visible side (right).

Mercury mascons

Figure XXIV: Mascons (circled) under basins on Mercury’s northern hemisphere. These basins are Caloris, Sobkou, Budh, Odin, Tir, Mozart etc. This map comes from gravity studies by the Messenger spacecraft. The gravity anomalies emerge after the data are corrected for a regional high.

It is impossible to form mascons by any EDM process reproducible in the lab, but testify to the fact that a significant portion of the impacting body (probably iron-rich) remains there.  Under these circumstances, it is safe to say that, generally, the large circular basins are the result of impact. 

Mars impact basins 

Figure XXV: The mascons on Mars are related to the Quasi Circular Depressions (QCD). Most are in the northern hemisphere making up the lowlands, in the same way that the Lunar Maria and their mascons also do in the north. Their origins are probably related to the Late Heavy Bombardment. 

Could impact craters and EDM craters have occurred at the same time?  Yes, certainly.  The disturbances caused by large impacting objects could easily have triggered massive electrical disturbances.  These would have been almost guaranteed if the incoming objects had a strong electrical charge.  This is evidence that the key times for electromagnetic effects would also be the times when showers of debris occurred from both the Late Heavy Bombardment and the break-ups that gave us the asteroid belt.

The differences and similarities from the two methods of crater formation are summarized in the following Table.






Simple crater




Complex crater




Central peak often present




Central peak dependent on crater size




Central peak ring on very large craters




Central peaks on very small craters




Flat floors for craters of all sizes




Vertical walls












No rim or ringwall




Scalloping of crater rim




Multiple craters from one event




Splash craters of various sizes




Crater chains as part of crater formation




Crater chains forming rilles or fissures




Radial groove system fr. various objects




Radial ridge system usually forms




Ray system usually forms




Multiple ejecta blankets instead of rays




Horizontal rim layers




Overturned rim layers




Nickel-iron bodies in the crater wall




Shocked quartz in the crater.




Mascons associated with largest objects



So basically, if a crater has any or all of these characteristics it was formed by impact:

  • overturned rim layers
  • a ray system, or radiating ridges
  • nickel-iron bodies embedded under the rim and shocked quartz in the crater
  • a mascon associated with it

If it has any or all of the following characteristics, it was formed by Electric Discharge Machining:  

  • horizontal rim strata
  • vertical walls coupled with a large completely flat floor
  • an ejecta blanket system
  • a central peak ring, then it is an EDM formation.