It’s hard to study what an asteroid impact does real-time as you’d need to be looking at the right spot at the right time. So simulations are often the way to go. Here’s a fun idea captured on video — throwing drops of water on to granular particles, similar to what you would find on a beach. The results, the researchers say, look surprisingly similar to “crater morphology”.
A quick caution — the similarity isn’t completely perfect. Raindrops are much smaller, and hit the ground at quite a lower speed than you would see an asteroid slam into Earth’s surface. But as the authors explain in a recent abstract, there is enough for them to do high-speed photography and make extrapolations.
Although the mechanism of granular impact cratering by solid spheres is well explored, our knowledge on granular impact cratering by liquid drops is still very limited. Here, by combining high-speed photography with high-precision laser profilometry, we investigate liquid-drop impact dynamics on granular surface and monitor the morphology of resulting impact craters. Surprisingly, we find that despite the enormous energy and length difference, granular impact cratering by liquid drops follows the same energy scaling and reproduces the same crater morphology as that of asteroid impact craters.
There are of course other ways of understanding how craters are formed. A common one is to look at them in “airless” bodies such as the Moon, Vesta or Ceres — and that latter world will be under extensive study in the next year. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is en route to the dwarf planet right now and will arrive there in 2015 to provide the first high-resolution views of its surface.
Amateurs can even collaborate with professionals in this regard by participating in Cosmoquest, an organization that hosts Moon Mappers, Planet Mappers: Mercury and Asteroid Mappers: Vesta — all examples of bodies in a vacuum with craters on them.
The research was presented at the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics annual meeting and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was led by Runchen Zhao at the University of Minnesota.