Massive Missing Meteorite Impact Crater Hunt Narrows After Glassy Debris Uncovered In Antarctica

We've found the debris, but not the crater. The hunt continues! Fidelis 139/Shutterstock

It may come as something of a surprise, but various volcanic eruptions and meteor impacts are, at present, missing their volcanoes and impact scars. We’ve found clues to their geological mischief, but so far the suspects elude identification. One such 800,000-year-old impact is proving particularly mysterious: All that can be found at present is a gigantic breadcrumb trail of debris, found predominantly over Australasia.

Now, reporting in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, an international team of meteorite mavericks have revealed that they’ve found some more of these vitreous breadcrumbs at the ends of the Earth, in the Transantarctic Mountains. The crater still eludes them, but the team from Imperial College London, Vrije University, and the Case Western Reserve University are narrowing it down with each latest treasure haul, including this one.

Once upon a time, a sizeable meteor penetrated our planet’s atmosphere and slammed into the crust. The sheer momentum of the object guaranteed that it generated not just a fairly voluminous crater, but a molten spray of debris, which eventually solidified into glassy beads known as tektites.

Currently, these have been found over an area of more than 150 million square kilometers (57 million square miles), from South-East Asia to Australia – more than 15 times the area of the US.

The distribution of these roughly pea-sized spherules, along with the age of the sediments they’re buried in, indicate that the perhaps 1 to 2.5-kilometer (0.6 to 1.6-mile) impactor’s crater was about 20 kilometers (12 miles) across, and formed 0.8 million years ago – relatively recent in geological terms. Although not exactly small, human land-use changes and sedimentological processes mean that craters, even young ones, can quickly disappear from view.

As the study notes, this field of debris – also including even smaller microtektites – is known as the “Australasian strewn field,” one of four terrestrial examples known to science. This one happens to be by far the largest, though, and it appears, with this latest study, it just got a little bigger.

Tektite locations within the Australasian strewn field, prior to this new paper's discovery. syncmedia/Wikimedia Commons; CC0
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