This long-lost asteroid impact was so big its debris left more than 30 craters

A secondary impact crater discovered in southeast Wyoming.
A secondary impact crater discovered in southeast Wyoming. (Image credit: Kent Sundell/Casper College)

Ricochet from a meteorite impact on Earth created a huge 'field' of craters that so far, we have only seen examples of on other planets.

The unique site in southeast Wyoming has more than 30 craters that were formed about 280 million years ago, researchers said in a new study. The craters were created after a meteorite impact hundreds of miles (or kilometers) away blew boulders of bedrock into the air.

"The trajectories indicate a single source and show that the craters were formed by ejected blocks from a large primary crater," study leader Thomas Kenkmann, a geologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany, said in a statement from the Geological Association of America, which published the new research. 

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"Secondary craters around larger craters are well known from other planets and moons," Kenkmann added, "but have never been found on Earth." Close to home, for example, lunar secondary craters pepper a region of the far side due to the proximity of four source craters: Finsen, Von Kármán L, Von Kármán L' and Antoniadi. (The area came under scrutiny from the Chinese Chang'e 4 moon lander.)

In addition to 31 craters the scientists have firmly identified as secondary features, the team spotted more than 60 other contenders.

When researchers first spotted the zone of craters, they suspected an asteroid (or space rock) had broken up in mid-air and sent rocks crashing into the ground beneath its path. Individual craters range between 32 and 230 feet (10 and 70 meters) in diameter, the researchers said.

Secondary craters within Von Kármán Crater, the Chang'e 4 landing region. (a) The great elliptic circle that linked the center of the Antoniadi Crater to the selected Chang'e 4 landing site. The base image is from the global mosaic obtained by China's Chang'e-2 mission. (b) Secondary craters within the Chang'e 4 landing region that are delivered by the Antoniadi Crater. White arrows mark the secondaries, and the yellow line is the possible trajectory of ejecta launched by the Antoniadi-forming impact. The location of this area is denoted as the white box in (a). The base image is from Japan's Kaguya lunar orbiter. (Image credit: Jun Huang, et al./AGU)

Further examination showed that several of the craters are clustered in small areas and several are elliptical, rather than circular, which suggested a different origin story for the features.

The craters also appear to be "aligned" along ray-like patterns, suggesting that these are secondary craters all formed by debris flung out around a central, primary crater made by the original impact.

But finding thet source crater will be a difficult task. The team's work suggests the crater is "deeply buried" in sediments, somewhere near the Wyoming-Nebraska border in a region called the Denver basin. 

Holbox Island and the Yalahau Lagoon on the northeast corner of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula are featured in this image, acquired by the Korea Multi-purpose Satellite (Kompsat-2) of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI). (Image credit: KARI via ESA)

If scientists can ever track it down, they expect the source crater would be roughly 31 to 40 miles (50 to 65 km) across. For comparison, the crater in the Yucatán Peninsula associated with the end of the dinosaurs about three times that diameter, at about 90 miles (150 km).

All of the secondary craters were due to bits of bedrock that were roughly house-sized, between 13 feet and 26 feet (4 m to 8 m) across, according to the researchers' calculations. The original impactor, they say, could have been more than 1.2 miles (2 km) wide.

A study based on the research was published Feb. 11 in the GSA Bulletin.

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Elizabeth Howell
Live Science Contributor
Elizabeth Howell is a regular contributor to Live Science and, along with several other science publications. She is one of a handful of Canadian reporters who specializes in space reporting. Elizabeth has a Bachelor of Journalism, Science Concentration at Carleton University (Canada) and an M.Sc. Space Studies (distance) at the University of North Dakota. Elizabeth became a full-time freelancer after earning her M.Sc. in 2012. She reported on three space shuttle launches in person and once spent two weeks in an isolated Utah facility pretending to be a Martian.