The Barringer Award Address Presented 1996 July 25, Berlin, Germany: Impact experiments related to the evolution of planetary regoliths




Abstract— Impact-induced comminution of planetary surfaces is pervasive throughout the solar system and occurs on submillimeter to global scales, resulting in comminution products that range from fine-grained surface soils, to massive, polymict ejecta deposits, to collisionally fragmented objects. Within this wide range of comminution products, we define regoliths in a narrow sense as materials that were processed by repetitive impacts to dimensional scales comparable to or smaller than that of component minerals of the progenitor rock(s). In this paper, we summarize a wide variety of impact experiments and other observations that were primarily intended to understand the evolution of regoliths on lunar basalt flows, and we discuss some of their implications for asteroidal surfaces.

Cratering experiments in both rock and noncohesive materials, combined with photogeologic observations of the lunar surface, demonstrate that craters <500 m in diameter contribute most to the excavation of local bedrock for subsequent processing by micrometeorites. The overall excavation rate and, thus, growth rate of the debris layer decreases with time, because the increasingly thicker fragmental layer will prevent progressively larger projectiles from reaching bedrock. Typical growth rates for a 5 m thick lunar soil layer are initially (∼≥3 Ga ago) a few mm/Ma and slowed to <1 mm/Ma at present. The coarse-grained crater ejecta are efficiently comminuted by collisional fragmentation processes, and the mean residence time of a 1 kg rock is typically 10 Ma. The actual comminution of either lithic or monomineralic detritus is highly mineral specific, with feldspar and mesostasis comminuting preferentially over pyroxene and olivine, thus resulting in mechanically fractionated fines, especially at grain sizes <20 μm. Such fractionated fines also participate preferentially in the shock melting of lunar soils, thus giving rise to “agglutinate” melts. As a consequence, agglutinate melts are systematically enriched in feldspar components relative to the bulk composition of their respective host soil(s). Compositionally homogeneous, impact derived glass beads in lunar soils seem to result from micrometeorite impacts on rock surfaces, reflecting lithic regolith components and associated mineral mixtures. Cumulatively, experimental and observational evidence from lunar mare soils suggests that regoliths derive substantially from the comminution of local bedrock; the addition of foreign, exotic components is not necessary to explain the modal and chemical compositions of diverse grain size fractions from typical lunar soils.

Regoliths on asteroids are qualitatively different from those of the Moon. The modest impact velocities in the asteroid belt, some 5 km s−1, are barely sufficient to produce impact melts. Also, substantially more crater mass is being displaced on low-gravity asteroids compared to the Moon; collisional processing of surface boulders should therefore be more prominent in producing comminuted asteroid surfaces. These processes combine into asteroidal surface deposits that have suffered modest levels of shock metamorphism compared to the Moon. Impact melting does not seem to be a significant process under these conditions. However, the role of cometary particles encountering asteroid surfaces at presumably higher velocities has not been addressed in the past. Unfortunately, the asteroidal surface processes that seemingly modify the spectral properties of ordinary chondrites to match telescopically obtained spectra of S-type asteroids remain poorly understood at present, despite the extensive experimental and theoretical insights summarized in this report and our fairly mature understanding of lunar surface processes and regolith evolution.