Determining the Origin of Moon Craters

    Until the late 1800's, most astronomers thought that volcanism formed the craters of the moon. However, in the 1870's, the English astronomer Richard A. Proctor proposed correctly that the craters result from the collision of solid objects with the moon. But at first, few scientists accepted Proctor's proposal. Most astronomers thought that the moon's craters must be volcanic in origin because no one had yet described a crater on Earth as an impact crater, but scientists had found dozens of obviously volcanic craters.

    In 1892, the American geologist Grove Karl Gilbert argued that most lunar craters were impact craters. He based his arguments on the large size of some of the craters. Those included the basins, which he was the first to recognize as huge craters. Gilbert also noted that lunar craters have only the most general resemblance to calderas (large volcanic craters) on Earth. Both lunar craters and calderas are large circular pits, but their structural details do not resemble each other in any way.

    In addition, Gilbert created small craters experimentally. He studied what happened when he dropped clay balls and shot bullets into clay and sand targets.

    Gilbert was the first to recognize that the circular Mare Imbrium was the site of a gigantic impact. By examining photographs, Gilbert also determined which nearby craters formed before and after that event. For example, a crater that is partially covered by ejecta from the Imbrium impact formed before the impact. A crater within the mare formed after the impact.

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