Meteor Crater

(Redirected from Barringer Crater)

Meteor Crater, or Barringer Crater,[2][3][4][5][6] is a meteorite impact crater about 37 mi (60 km) east of Flagstaff and 18 mi (29 km) west of Winslow in the desert of northern Arizona, United States. The site had several earlier names, and fragments of the meteorite are officially called the Canyon Diablo Meteorite, after the adjacent Cañon Diablo.[7] Because the United States Board on Geographic Names recognizes names of natural features derived from the nearest post office, the feature acquired the name of "Meteor Crater" from the nearby post office named Meteor.[8][better source needed]

Meteor Crater
Barringer Crater
Meteor Crater - Arizona.jpg
Meteor Crater, also known as Barringer Crater
Impact crater/structure
Diameter0.737 miles (1.186 km)
Depth560 feet (170 m)
Rise148 feet (45 m)
Impactor diameter160 feet (50 m)
Age50,000 years
Bolide typeIron meteorite
LocationCoconino County
Coordinates35°01′41″N 111°01′24″W / 35.02806°N 111.02333°W / 35.02806; -111.02333Coordinates: 35°01′41″N 111°01′24″W / 35.02806°N 111.02333°W / 35.02806; -111.02333
CountryUnited States
Meteor Crater is located in Arizona
Meteor Crater
Meteor Crater
Location of Meteor Crater in Arizona
AccessInterstate 40
DesignatedNovember 1967

Meteor Crater lies at an elevation of 5,640 ft (1,719 m) above sea level.[9] It is about 3,900 ft (1,200 m) in diameter, some 560 ft (170 m) deep, and is surrounded by a rim that rises 148 ft (45 m) above the surrounding plains. The center of the crater is filled with 690–790 ft (210–240 m) of rubble lying above crater bedrock.[1] One of the interesting features of the crater is its squared-off outline, believed to be caused by existing regional jointing (cracks) in the strata at the impact site.[10]

Despite historic attempts to make the crater a public landmark,[11] the crater remains privately owned by the Barringer family to the present day through their Barringer Crater Company, which proclaims it to be the "best-preserved meteorite crater on Earth".[12][13] Since the crater is privately owned, it is not protected as a national monument, a status that would require federal ownership. It was designated a National Natural Landmark in November 1967.[14]


Comparison of approximate sizes of notable impactors with the Hoba meteorite, a Boeing 747 and a New Routemaster bus

The crater was created about 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene epoch, when the local climate on the Colorado Plateau was much cooler and damper.[15][16] The area was an open grassland dotted with woodlands inhabited by mammoths and giant ground sloths.[17][18]

The object that excavated the crater was a nickel-iron meteorite about 160 ft (50 m) across. The speed of the impact has been a subject of some debate. Modeling initially suggested that the meteorite struck at up to 45,000 mph (20 km/s), but more recent research suggests the impact was substantially slower, at 29,000 mph (12.8 km/s). About half of the impactor's bulk is believed to have been vaporized during its descent through the atmosphere.[19] Impact energy has been estimated at about 10 megatons TNTe. The meteorite was mostly vaporized upon impact, leaving few remains in the crater.[20]

Since the crater's formation, the rim is thought to have lost 50–65 ft (15–20 m) of height at the rim crest as a result of natural erosion. Similarly, the basin of the crater is thought to have roughly 100 ft (30 m) of additional postimpact sedimentation from lake sediments and alluvium.[21] Very few remaining craters are visible on Earth, since many have been erased by erosive geological processes. The relatively young age of Meteor Crater, paired with the dry Arizona climate, has allowed this crater to remain comparatively unchanged since its formation. The lack of erosion that preserved the crater's shape greatly accelerated its groundbreaking recognition as an impact crater from a natural celestial body.[22]

Discovery and investigationEdit

The Holsinger meteorite, at roughly 0.8 m (2½ ft) across, is the largest discovered fragment of the meteorite that created Meteor Crater, and it is exhibited in the crater visitor center.

The crater came to the attention of scientists after American settlers encountered it in the 19th century. The crater was given several early names, including "Coon Mountain", "Coon Butte", "Crater Mountain", "Meteor Mountain", and "Meteor Crater".[23][24][25] The Meteoritical Society refers to the crater as Barringer Meteorite Crater [26] because Daniel M. Barringer was one of the first people to suggest that it was produced by meteorite impact, and because the Barringer family filed mining claims on the crater and purchased the crater and its surroundings in the early 20th century.[27][28] Meteorites from the area were called Canyon Diablo meteorites, after Canyon Diablo, Arizona, which was the closest community to the crater in the late 19th century. The canyon also crosses the strewn field, where meteorites from the crater-forming event were found. The crater had initially been ascribed to the actions of a volcanic steam explosion, because the San Francisco volcanic field lies only about 40 mi (64 km) to the west.[29]

Albert E. FooteEdit

In 1891, mineralogist Albert E. Foote presented the first scientific paper about the meteorites of Northern Arizona.[30] Several years earlier, Foote had received an iron rock for analysis from a railroad executive. Foote immediately recognized the rock as a meteorite and led an expedition to search and retrieve additional meteorite samples. The team collected samples ranging from small fragments to over 600 lb (270 kg). Foote identified several minerals in the meteorites, including diamond, albeit of little commercial value. His paper to the Association for the Advancement of Science provided the first geological description of the crater to a scientific community.[31]

Grove Karl GilbertEdit

In November 1891, Grove Karl Gilbert, chief geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, investigated the crater and concluded that it was the result of a volcanic steam explosion.[31] Gilbert had assumed that if it were an impact crater, then the volume of the crater, as well as meteoritic material, should exist in the rim. Gilbert also assumed a large portion of the meteorite should be buried in the crater and that this would generate a large magnetic anomaly. Gilbert's calculations showed that the volume of the crater and the debris on the rim were roughly equivalent, so that the mass of the hypothetical impactor was missing, nor were there any magnetic anomalies; he argued that the meteorite fragments found on the rim were coincidental. Gilbert publicized his conclusions in a series of lectures.[32] In 1892, however, Gilbert would be among the first to propose that the Moon's craters were caused by impact rather than volcanism.[33]

Daniel M. BarringerEdit

Looking into the crater from the north rim: The rust-colored area on the far (south) rim is where the last drilling for the meteorite occurred, in 1929. This is where Daniel M. Barringer believed the bulk of the meteorite was buried. Rock around the south rim is lifted up.

In 1903, mining engineer and businessman Daniel M. Barringer suggested that the crater had been produced by the impact of a large iron-metallic meteorite. Barringer's company, the Standard Iron Company, staked a mining claim to the land and received a land patent signed by Theodore Roosevelt for 640 acres (1 sq mi, 260 ha) around the center of the crater in 1903.[34][35][28] The claim was divided into four quadrants coming from the center clockwise from north-west named Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. In 1906, Roosevelt authorized the establishment of a newly named Meteor, Arizona, post office (the closest post office before was 30 mi (48 km) away in Winslow, Arizona).[36] This new post office was located at Sunshine, a stop on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, 6 mi north of the crater.[37]

Close-up of old mine shaft at the bottom of the crater: The Barringer Crater Company has attached an astronaut cutout and flag to the fence (inset; see full-sized image).

Standard Iron Company conducted research on the crater's origins between 1903 and 1905. It concluded that the crater had indeed been caused by an impact. Barringer and his partner, mathematician and physicist Benjamin Chew Tilghman, documented evidence for the impact theory in papers presented to the U.S. Geological Survey in 1906 and published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.[38]

Barringer's arguments were met with skepticism, as a reluctance existed at the time to consider the role of meteorites in terrestrial geology. He persisted and sought to bolster his theory by locating the remains of the meteorite. At the time of discovery, the surrounding plains were covered with about 30 tons of large, oxidized iron meteorite fragments. This led Barringer to believe that the bulk of the impactor could still be found under the crater floor. Impact physics was poorly understood at the time, and Barringer was unaware that most of the meteorite vaporized on impact. He spent 27 years trying to locate a large deposit of meteoric iron, and drilled to a depth of 1,375 ft (419 m), but no significant deposit was ever found.[39][self-published source?]

Barringer, who in 1894 was one of the investors who made US$15 million in the Commonwealth silver mine in Pearce, Cochise County, Arizona, had ambitious plans for the iron ore.[40] He estimated from the size of the crater that the meteorite had a mass of 100 million tons.[32] Iron ore of the type found at the crater was valued at the time at US$125/ton, so Barringer was searching for a lode he believed to be worth more than a billion 1903 dollars.[40] "By 1928, Barringer had sunk the majority of his fortune into the crater – $500,000, or roughly $7 million in [2017] dollars."[41]

In 1929, astronomer F.R. Moulton was employed by the Barringer Crater Company to investigate the physics of the impact event. Moulton concluded that the impactor likely weighed as little as 300,000 tonnes, and that the impact of such a body would have generated enough heat to vaporize the impactor instantly.[42][43][44] Daniel M. Barringer died just ten days after the publication of Moulton's second report.

By this time, "the great weight of scientific opinion had swung around to the accuracy of the impact hypothesis ... Apparently an idea, too radical and new for acceptance in 1905, no matter how logical, had gradually grown respectable during the intervening 20 years."[45]

Harvey H. NiningerEdit

Fragment of the Cañon Diablo Meteorite

Harvey Harlow Nininger was an American meteoriticist and educator, and although he was self-taught, he revived interest in scientific study of meteorites in the 1930s, and assembled the largest personal collection of meteorites up to that time. While based in Denver, Colorado, Nininger published the first edition of a pamphlet titled "A Comet Strikes the Earth", which described how Meteor Crater formed when an asteroid impacted the Earth.[46] In 1942, Harvey Nininger moved his home and business from Denver to the Meteor Crater Observatory, located near the turn-off for Meteor Crater on Route 66.[47] He renamed the building the "American Meteorite Museum" and published a number of meteorite and Meteor Crater-related books from the location. He also conducted a wide range of research at the crater, discovering impactite, iron-nickel spherules related to the impact and vaporization of the asteroid, and the presence of many features still unique to the crater, such as half-melted slugs of meteoric iron mixed with melted target rock. Nininger's discoveries were compiled and published in a seminal work, Arizona's Meteorite Crater (1956).[48] Nininger's extensive sampling and fieldwork in the 1930s and 40s contributed significantly to the scientific community's acceptance of the idea that Meteor Crater formed by the impact of an asteroid.[49]

Harvey Nininger believed that the crater should be nationalized as a public park, and in 1948, successfully petitioned the American Astronomical Society to pass a motion in support by giving the false claim that the Barringers were willing to sell it, when in fact they intended to continue mining there.[11] Nininger was operating a private meteorite museum on the premises at the time, and perhaps he saw public ownership of the crater as an opportunity to move his museum to the rim, obtain a government salary, and possibly found a Federal institute of meteorite science.[11] The Barringer family promptly terminated his exploration rights and ability to conduct further fieldwork at the crater.[11]

Postcard from the American Meteorite Museum, near Meteor Crater, Arizona

Eugene M. ShoemakerEdit

Meteor Crater from the southeast; the uplift around the rim can be seen

Later research by Eugene Merle Shoemaker confirmed that the crater had formed due to a significant asteroid impact. A key discovery was the presence in the crater of the minerals coesite and stishovite, rare forms of silica found only where quartz-bearing rocks have been severely shocked by an instantaneous overpressure. It cannot be created by volcanic action; the only known mechanisms of creating it are naturally through an impact event, or artificially through a nuclear explosion.[34][50] In 1960, Edward C. T. Chao and Shoemaker identified coesite at Meteor Crater, adding to the growing body of evidence that the crater was formed from an impact generating extremely high temperatures and pressures. The impact would have vaporized much of the main body of iron mass. The pieces of Canyon Diablo meteorite found scattered around the site would have broken away from the main body before impact.[51]

Geologists used the nuclear detonation that created the Sedan crater, and other such craters from the era of atmospheric nuclear testing, to establish upper and lower limits on the kinetic energy of the meteor impactor.[52]


The impact created an inverted stratigraphy, so that the layers immediately exterior to the rim are stacked in the reverse order to which they normally occur; the impact overturned and inverted the layers to a distance of 1–2 km outward from the crater's edge.[53][54] Specifically, climbing the rim of the crater from outside, one finds:

Soils around the crater are brown, slightly to moderately alkaline, gravelly or stony loam of the Winona series; on the crater rim and in the crater itself, the Winona is mapped in a complex association with rock outcrop.[55]

Panoramic view from upper deck

Recent historyEdit

During the 1960s and 1970s, NASA astronauts trained in the crater to prepare for the Apollo missions to the Moon.[56][57]

Meteor Crater from 36,000 ft (11,000 m), viewed from a passing Air Canada airliner

On August 8, 1964, two commercial pilots in a Cessna 150 flew low over the crater. After crossing the rim, they could not maintain level flight. The pilot attempted to circle in the crater to climb over the rim. During the attempted climb out, the aircraft stalled, crashed, and caught fire. The plane is commonly reported to have run out of fuel, but this is incorrect. Both occupants were severely injured, but survived.[58] A small portion of the wreckage not removed from the crash site remains visible.[59]

In 2006, a project called METCRAX (for METeor CRAter eXperiment) investigated "the diurnal buildup and breakdown of basin temperature inversions or cold-air pools and the associated physical and dynamical processes accounting for their evolving structure and morphology."[60][61]

Tourist attractionEdit

Meteor Crater is a popular tourist destination with roughly 270,000 visitors per year.[62] The crater is owned by a family company, the Barringer Crater Company.[63] Meteor Crater is an important educational and research site.[64] It was used to train Apollo astronauts and continues to be an active training site for astronauts.[65][66] The Meteor Crater Visitor Center sits on the north rim of the crater. It features interactive exhibits and displays about meteorites and asteroids, space, the Solar System, and comets including the American Astronaut Wall of Fame and such artifacts on display as an Apollo boilerplate command module (BP-29), a 1,406 lb (638 kg) meteorite found in the area, and meteorite specimens from Meteor Crater that can be touched. Formerly known as the Museum of Astrogeology, the Visitor Center includes a Discovery Center & Space Museum,[67] a movie theater, a gift shop, and observation areas with views inside the rim of the crater. Guided tours of the rim are offered daily, weather permitting.[68]

See alsoEdit


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External linksEdit