What Created This Huge Crater In Siberia?

What is it with Russia and explosive events of cosmic origins? The 1908 Tunguska Explosion, the Chelyabinsk bolide of February 2013, and now this: an enormous 80-meter 60-meter wide crater discovered in the Yamal peninsula in northern Siberia!

To be fair, this crater is not currently thought to be from a meteorite impact but rather an eruption from below, possibly the result of a rapid release of gas trapped in what was once frozen permafrost. The Yamal region is rich in oil and natural gas, and the crater is located 30 km away from its largest gas field. Still, a team of researchers are en route to investigate the mysterious hole further.

Watch a video captured by engineer Konstantin Nikolaev during a helicopter flyover below:

In the video the Yamal crater/hole has what appear to be streams of dry material falling into it. Its depth has not yet been determined. (Update: latest measurements estimate the depth of the hole to be 50-70 meters. Source.)

Bill Chappell writes on NPR’s “The Two-Way”:

“The list of possible natural explanations for the giant hole includes a meteorite strike and a gas explosion, or possibly an eruption of underground ice.”

Dark material around the inner edge of the hole seems to suggest high temperatures during its formation. But rather than the remains of a violent impact by a space rock — or the crash-landing of a UFO, as some have already speculated — this crater may be a particularly explosive result of global warming.

According to The Siberian Times:

“Anna Kurchatova from Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre thinks the crater was formed by a water, salt and gas mixture igniting an underground explosion, the result of global warming. She postulates that gas accumulated in ice mixed with sand beneath the surface, and that this was mixed with salt – some 10,000 years ago this area was a sea.”

The crater is thought to have formed sometime in 2012.

Read more at The Siberian Times and NPR.

UPDATE July 17: A new video (in Russian) of the hole from the research team has come out, and apparently it’s been made clear that it’s not the result of a meteorite. Exactly what process did produce it is still unknown, but rising temperatures are still thought to be a factor. Watch below (via Sploid).

(If any Russian-speaking UT readers would like to translate what’s being said, feel free to share in the comments below.)

Also check out the latest photos from the research expedition at The Siberian Times here.

UPDATE Nov. 13: Once the water in these holes froze solid scientists were able to enter and explore the bottoms. According to an article published on The Guardian, “eighty percent of the crater appears to be made up of ice and there are no traces of a meteorite strike.”

Researchers descend into an ice-covered Yamal Crater in Siberia. Credit: Vladimir Pushkarev/Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration (via Siberian Times) 
Researchers descend into an ice-covered Yamal Crater in Siberia. Credit: Vladimir Pushkarev/Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration (via Siberian Times)

“As of now we don’t see anything dangerous in the sudden appearance of such holes, but we’ve got to study them properly to make absolutely sure we understand the nature of their appearance and don’t need to be afraid about them.”

– Vladimir Pushkarev, Director, Russian Center of Arctic Exploration

See more photos from inside the crater from the Russian Center of Arctic Exploration on The Siberian Times here.

German Impact Crater Could Have Hosted Early Life On Earth

Could life thrive in the devastated rock left behind after a meteorite impact? A new study hints that possibly, that could be the case. Researchers discovered what they think are geological records of biological activity inside of Nördlinger Ries, a crater in Germany that is about 15 miles (24 kilometers) wide.

What the researchers say could be microbial trace fossils — specifically, tiny “tubular features” — were spotted inside the impact glass created after the meteorite impact melted the surrounding rock. These features are tiny — one-millionth to three-millionths of a meter in diameter — and were examined with spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy to confirm the findings, the team stated.

“The simplest and most consistent explanation of the data is that biological activity played a role in the formation of the tubular textures in the Ries glasses, likely during post-impact hydrothermal activity,” stated post-doctoral fellow Haley Sapers, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Western Ontario who led the research.

The researchers suggest that on other planets, looking in impact glass might be a good spot to search for tubular features such as the ones they found. The findings are peer-reviewed, but we’ll be interested to see what independent research teams make of the data collected.

You can read more about the research in the journal Geology.

Source: University of Western Ontario

Plastic Protection Against Cosmic Rays?

It could work, say researchers from the University of New Hampshire and the Southwest Research Institute.

One of the inherent dangers of space travel and long-term exploration missions beyond Earth is the constant barrage of radiation, both from our own Sun and in the form of high-energy particles originating from outside the Solar System called cosmic rays. Extended exposure can result in cellular damage and increased risks of cancer at the very least, and in large doses could even result in death. If we want human astronauts to set up permanent outposts on the Moon, explore the dunes and canyons of Mars, or mine asteroids for their valuable resources, we will first need to develop adequate (and reasonably economical) protection from dangerous space radiation… or else such endeavors will be nothing more than glorified suicide missions.

While layers of rock, soil, or water could protect against cosmic rays, we haven’t yet developed the technology to hollow out asteroids for spaceships or build stone spacesuits (and sending large amounts of such heavy materials into space isn’t yet cost-effective.)  Luckily, there may be a much easier way to protect astronauts from cosmic rays — using lightweight plastics.

While aluminum has always been the primary material in spacecraft construction, it provides relatively little protection against high-energy cosmic rays and can add so much mass to spacecraft that they become cost-prohibitive to launch.

Using observations made by the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) orbiting the Moon aboard LRO, researchers from UNH and SwRI have found that plastics, adequately designed, can provide better protection than aluminum or other heavier materials.

“This is the first study using observations from space to confirm what has been thought for some time—that plastics and other lightweight materials are pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum,” said Cary Zeitlin of the SwRI Earth, Oceans, and Space Department at UNH. “Shielding can’t entirely solve the radiation exposure problem in deep space, but there are clear differences in effectiveness of different materials.”

Zeitlin is lead author of a paper published online in the American Geophysical Union journal Space Weather.

A block of tissue-equivalent plastic (Credit: UNH)
A block of tissue-equivalent plastic (TEP) Credit: UNH

The plastic-aluminum comparison was made in earlier ground-based tests using beams of heavy particles to simulate cosmic rays. “The shielding effectiveness of the plastic in space is very much in line with what we discovered from the beam experiments, so we’ve gained a lot of confidence in the conclusions we drew from that work,” says Zeitlin. “Anything with high hydrogen content, including water, would work well.”

The space-based results were a product of CRaTER’s ability to accurately gauge the radiation dose of cosmic rays after passing through a material known as “tissue-equivalent plastic,” which simulates human muscle tissue.

(It may not look like human tissue, but it collects energy from cosmic particles in much the same way.)

Prior to CRaTER and recent measurements by the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) on the Mars rover Curiosity, the effects of thick shielding on cosmic rays had only been simulated in computer models and in particle accelerators, with little observational data from deep space.

The CRaTER observations have validated the models and the ground-based measurements, meaning that lightweight shielding materials could safely be used for long missions — provided their structural properties can be made adequate to withstand the rigors of spaceflight.

Sources: EurekAlert and [email protected]

Mercury Shows Off Its Reds, Whites, and Blues

At first glance, the planet Mercury may bear a striking resemblance to our own Moon. True, both are heavily-cratered, airless worlds that hide pockets of ice inside polar shadows… but there the similarities end. In addition to being compositionally different than the Moon, Mercury also has surface features that you won’t find on the lunar surface — or anywhere else in the Solar System.

The picture above, part of an 11-color targeted image acquired by MESSENGER on April 25, 2013, shows the varied terrain found within the 97-kilometer-wide Tyagaraja crater located near Mercury’s equator. The reds, blues, greens, and oranges, much more saturated than anything we’d see with our own eyes, correspond to surface materials of different compositions… and the brightest spots within the crater are features called “hollows” that are truly unique to Mercury, possibly resulting from the planet’s close interaction with the solar wind.

First noted in September of 2011, hollows have been identified across many areas of Mercury. One hypothesis is that they’re formed by the sublimation of subsurface material exposed inside larger craters. Being so close to the Sun and lacking a protective atmosphere, Mercury is constantly being scoured by the solar wind — a relentless stream of charged particles that’s actively “sandblasting” exposed volatiles from the planet’s surface!

Read more about hollows here.

A previous MESSENGER image of hollows inside Tyagaraja crater
A previous MESSENGER image of hollows inside Tyagaraja crater

The reddish spot at the center of the crater in the top image is likely material surrounding a pyroclastic vent, which appear red and orange in MDIS images. The dark material that appears bluish is something called “low reflectance material” (LRM).

The image was acquired as a targeted high-resolution 11-color image set. Acquiring 11-color targets is a new MESSENGER campaign that began in March and utilizes all of the Wide-Angle Camera’s 11 narrow-band color filters. Because of the large data volume involved, only features of special scientific interest are targeted for imaging in all 11 colors.

Full of geologically interesting features the crater was named for Kakarla Tyagabrahmam, an 18th century composer of classical South Indian music.

The first spacecraft to establish orbit around Mercury in summer 2011, MESSENGER is capable of continuing orbital operations until early 2015.

Read more on the Johns Hopkins University APL MESSENGER site here.

Credits:  NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

This is NOT the Russian Meteorite Crater

There’s been a lot of really incredible videos and images of the meteor that streaked across Russian skies on Feb. 15, 2013… but this isn’t one of them.

I recently spotted it on YouTube, uploaded by several users and claiming to be a crater from the meteorite. Whether done purposely to deceive or just in error, the fact is that this isn’t from that event. Actually it’s not even a meteorite crater at all.

What this video shows is a feature in Derweze, Turkmenistan. It’s the remains of a 1971 drilling project by Soviet geologists. When the ground under their rig collapsed after breaking into an underground cavern full of natural gas, the geologists decided to set the borehole on fire to flare off the gases.

Panorama of The Door to Hell (Tormod Sandtorv/Wikipedia)
Panorama of The Door to Hell (Tormod Sandtorv/Wikipedia)

They assumed all the gas would soon burn off and the fire would go out. But it’s still burning today, nearly 42 years later.

The fiery glow from the circular pit has inspired the hole’s local name, “The Door to Hell.” You can find some photos of this infernal feature here.

Anyway, in the nature of not only informing but also preventing the spread of disinformation, hopefully this will help clear up any confusion for those who might run across the same video in coming days. News about the Russian meteor is still — no pun intended — very hot right now, and it’s likely that at least a few fraudulent articles might try to garner some attention.

If you want to see some real videos of the meteor, check out our original breaking news article here and see some photos of an actual resulting crater — icy, not fiery — in a frozen Russian lake here.

In order to not make for more easy hits on the incorrectly-titled video I did not set it to play. If you do still want to watch it, you can find it here.

What Craters on the Moon Teach Us About Earth

When the Moon was receiving its highest number of impacts, so was Earth. Credit: Dan Durda

Some questions about our own planet are best answered by looking someplace else entirely… in the case of impact craters and when, how and how often they were formed, that someplace can be found shining down on us nearly every night: our own companion in space, the Moon.

By studying lunar impact craters both young and old scientists can piece together the physical processes that took place during the violent moments of their creation, as well as determine how often Earth — a considerably bigger target — was experiencing similar events (and likely in much larger numbers as well.)

With no substantial atmosphere, no weather and no tectonic activity, the surface of the Moon is a veritable time capsule for events taking place in our region of the Solar System. While our constantly-evolving Earth tends to hide its past, the Moon gives up its secrets much more readily… which is why present and future lunar missions are so important to science.

linne_shade_scalebTake the crater Linné, for example. A young, pristine lunar crater, the 2.2-km-wide Linné was formed less than 10 million years ago… much longer than humans have walked the Earth, yes, but very recently on lunar geologic terms.

It was once thought that the circular Linné (as well as other craters) is bowl-shaped, thus setting a precedent for the morphology of craters on the Moon and on Earth. But laser-mapping observations by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (at right) determined in early 2012 that that’s not the case; Linné is actually more of a truncated inverted cone, with a flattened interior floor surrounded by sloping walls that rise up over half a kilometer to its rim.

On our planet the erosive processes of wind, water, and earth soon distort the shapes of craters like Linné, wearing them down, filling them in and eventually hiding them from plain sight completely. But in the Moon’s airless environment where the only weathering comes from more impacts they retain their shape for much longer lengths of time, looking brand-new for many millions of years. By studying young craters in greater detail scientists are now able to better figure out just what happens when large objects strike the surface of worlds — events that can and do occur quite regularly in the Solar System, and which may have even allowed life to gain a foothold on Earth.

Most of the craters visible on the Moon today — Linné excluded, of course — are thought to have formed within a narrow period of time between 3.8 and 3.9 billion years ago. This period, called the Late Heavy Bombardment, saw a high rate of impact events throughout the inner Solar System, not only on the Moon but also on Mars, Mercury, presumably Venus and Earth as well. In fact, since at 4 times its diameter the Earth is a much larger target than the Moon, it stands to reason that Earth was impacted many more times than the Moon as well. Such large amounts of impacts introduced material from the outer Solar System to the early Earth as well as melted areas of the surface, releasing compounds like water that had been locked up in the crust… and even creating the sorts of environments where life could have begun to develop and thrive.

(It’s been suggested that there was even a longer period of heavy impact rates nicknamed the “late late heavy bombardment” that lingered up until about 2.5 billion years ago. Read more here.)

In the video below lunar geologist David Kring discusses the importance of impacts on the evolution of the Moon, Earth and eventually life as we know it today:

“Impact cratering in Earth’s past has affected not only the geologic but the biologic evolution of our planet, and we were able to deduce that in part by the lessons we learned by studying the Moon… and you just have to wonder what other things we can learn by going back to the Moon and studying that planetary body further.”

– David Kring

David is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, TX.

It’s these sorts of connections that make lunar exploration so valuable. Keys to our planet’s past are literally sitting on the surface of the Moon, a mere 385,000 km away, waiting for us to just scoop them up and bring them back. While the hunt for a biological history on Mars or resource-mining an asteroid are definitely important goals in their own right, only the Moon holds such direct references to Earth. It’s like an orbiting index to the ongoing story of our planet — all we have to do is make the connections.


Learn more about lunar research at the LPI site here, and see the latest news and images from LRO here.

The South Rim of Aristarchus

LROC view looking obliquely of the south rim of Aristarchus from the west (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Flying over at an altitude of 135 km, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this lovely oblique view of the crater Aristarchus, looking down at the 40-km (25-mile) -wide crater’s southern rim from the west.

The broad flank of Aristarchus’ 300-meter (980-foot) central peak and surrounding hills can be seen at left, casting lengthening shadows in the setting sun.

Named after the Greek astronomer who first proposed a controversial heliocentric model for the Solar System in the 3rd century BCE, Aristarchus is a prominent crater located near the Moon’s northwestern limb within the geologically-diverse Oceanus Procellarum — the “Ocean of Storms.” Surrounded by rays of bright ejecta that extend down its stepped rim, the floor of Aristarchus drops 3.7 km (2.3 miles) below the surrounding lunar landscape.

Read more: LRO Lets You Stand on the Rim of Aristarchus Crater

The bright material seen in the ejecta streaks seems to echo the patterns of light and dark material lining the slopes of Aristarchus’ central peak, suggesting that they may be the made of similar material.


Detail of the 4.5-km-long central peak of Aristarchus (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

The impact that created Aristarchus an estimated 450 million years ago excavated subsurface material, melting and spraying it tens of kilometers over the surrounding plateau. It’s thought that the central peak is likely composed of the same stuff, dredged up by the impact and frozen in place.

Future lunar explorers, should they ever visit this region, would be able to collect samples from the base of the central peak and compare them to samples from the bright rays to see if they match up, allowing researchers to learn about the composition of the material underlying the plateau from rocks scattered conveniently around the surface… this is the beauty of such (relatively) recent craters! The digging’s already been done for us.

Read more about this on Arizona State University’s LROC site and explore a zoomable version of the original NAC frame here.

Lighting Up Mercury’s Shadowy North Pole

Part of a stereographic projection of Mercury’s north pole

Talk about northern exposure! This is a section of a much larger image, released today by the MESSENGER team, showing the heavily-cratered north pole of Mercury as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft’s Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument.

See the full-size image below:

Many MDIS images were averaged together to create a mosaic of Mercury’s polar region, which this stereographic projection is centered on. MESSENGER is at its lowest altitude as it passes over Mercury’s northern hemisphere — about  200 kilometers (124 miles), which is just a little over half the altitude of the ISS.

The largest centrally-peaked crater near the center is Prokofiev, named after a 20th-century Russian composer. Approximately 110 km (68 mi.) in diameter, its permanently-shadowed interior is home to radar-bright deposits that are thought to contain water ice.

Even though Mercury is almost three times closer to the Sun than Earth is and hosts searing daytime temperatures of 425ºC (800ºF), there’s virtually no atmosphere to hold or transmit that heat. Nighttime temperatures can reach as low as -185ºC (-300ºF), and since a day on Mercury is 176 Earth days long it gets very cold for quite a long time!

Also, because Mercury’s axis of rotation isn’t tilted like Earth’s, low elevation areas near the poles receive literally no sunlight. Unless vaporized by a meteorite impact any ice gathered inside these deep craters would remain permanently frozen.

Here’s an orthographic projection of the image above, showing what the scene would look like on Mercury — that is, if it was ever fully lit by the Sun, which it isn’t.

Many of the craters on Mercury’s north pole have recently been named after famous artists, authors and composers, such as Kandinsky, Stieglitz, Goethe, and even one named after J.R.R. Tolkien. You can see an annotated image showing the names of Mercury’s north polar craters here.

Read More: “The Hobbit” Author Gets a Crater on Mercury

On November 29, NASA will host a news conference at 2 p.m. EST to reveal new observations from MESSENGER, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. The news conference will be carried live on NASA Television and the agency’s website… you can tune in on NASA TV here. 

Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury’s Surface is Full of Sulfur

The southern portion of Mercury’s Vivaldi basin and outlying rugged terrain

Named for the 17th-century Venetian composer, the southern half of Mercury’s Vivaldi basin is seen in this image acquired on August 26 by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. The 213-km (132-mile) -wide crater’s smooth floor is contrasted by the incredibly rugged terrain beyond its outermost ring — a result of the ejected material that was flung out from the impact site and emphasized by the low angle of illumination.

The floor of the crater remained relatively smooth due to molten material that erupted in the wake of the impact event, flooding the basin.

Recent findings from the MESSENGER mission have revealed variations in Mercury’s surface composition due to volcanism that occurred at different times, as well as a surprising concentration of elements like magnesium and sulfur — much more so than any of the other terrestrial planets.

In results to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists report that Mercury’s volcanic smooth plains differ in composition from older surrounding terrains. The older terrain has higher ratios of magnesium to silicon, sulfur to silicon, and calcium to silicon, but lower ratios of aluminum to silicon, suggesting that the smooth plains material erupted from a magma source that was chemically different from the source of the material in the older regions, according to Shoshana Weider of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the lead author on the paper.

Mercury’s surface was also found to be high in magnesium and sulfur-enriched minerals.

“None of the other terrestrial planets have such high levels of sulfur. We are seeing about ten times the amount of sulfur than on Earth and Mars,” Weider said. “In terms of magnesium, we do have some materials on Earth that are high in magnesium. They tend to be ancient volcanic rocks that formed from very hot lavas. So this composition on Mercury tells us that eruptions of high-temperature lavas might have formed these high-magnesium materials.”

Read: MESSENGER Reveals Mercury’s Colors

The data was gathered with MESSENGER’s X-Ray Spectrometer (XRS) — one of two instruments designed to measure the abundances of many key elements in the top 2mm of Mercury’s crust. XRS detects emissions from elements in the 1-10 kiloelectron-volt (keV) range – specifically, magnesium, aluminum, silicon, sulfur, calcium, titanium, and iron.

Read more on the MESSENGER mission site here.

Inset image: A global mosaic of Mercury from MESSENGER (2011). Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

“The Hobbit” Author Gets a Crater on Mercury

Here’s a little something to please fans of space, art and fantasy alike (and those who enjoy all three): on August 6 the International Astronomical Union approved names for 9 craters on Mercury, one of which is named for J.R.R. Tolkien, revered author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (among other seminal fantasy works.)

The crater Tolkien is approximately 30 miles (48 km) in diameter. All 9 newly-named craters are located in Mercury’s north polar region and exhibit radar evidence of water ice hidden in their shadowy pocketses.

IAU procedure for craters on Mercury has them named after “deceased artists, musicians, painters, and authors who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to their field and have been recognized as art historically significant figures for more than 50 years.” Find out who all 9 new craters are named for after the jump:

Egonu, for Uzo Egonu (1931-1996), a Nigerian-born painter who at 13 was sent to England to study art, first at a private school in Norfolk and later at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. Exile, alienation, and the pain of displaced peoples were recurrent themes in his work.

Gaudí­, after Antoni Gaudí­ (1852-1926), a Spanish architect whose work concentrated largely on the Catalan capital of Barcelona. He was very skilled with ceramics, stained glass, wrought-iron forging, and carpentry and integrated these crafts into his architecture.

Kandinsky, for Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), a Russian painter and art theorist credited with painting the first purely abstract works.

Petronius, for Titus Petronius (c. AD 27-66), a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian era.

Prokofiev, for Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor who is considered one of the major composers of the 20th century. His best-known works include the ballet Romeo and Juliet — from which “Dance of the Knights” is taken — and Peter and the Wolf.

Tolkien, for John Ronald Reuel (J. R. R.) Tolkien (1892-1973), an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Tryggvadóttir, for Nina Tryggvadóttir (1913-1968), one of Iceland’s most important abstract expressionist artists and one of very few Icelandic female artists of her generation. She primarily worked in painting, but she also created collages, stained glass work, and mosaics.

Qiu Ying, for Shifu Qiu Ying (1494-1552), a Chinese painter who specialized in the gongbi brush technique, a careful realist method in Chinese painting. He is regarded as one of the Four Great Masters of the Ming Dynasty.

Yoshikawa, for Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962), a Japanese historical novelist best known for his revisions of older classics including The Tale of the Heike, Tale of Genji, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

“These designations expand the opportunities to recognize the contributions to the arts by the most creative individuals from many cultures and eras. The names of those individuals are now linked in perpetuity to the innermost planet.”

– Sean Solomon, MESSENGER Principal Investigator

The craters were imaged by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, currently in extended mission around Mercury. Learn more about the preciousss MESSENGER mission here. (Gollum! Gollum!)

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington