Evidence for an explosive origin of central pit craters on Mars

Nathan R. Williams, James Bell, Philip Christensen, Jack Farmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Kilometer-scale pits are nested in the centers of many impact craters on Mars as well as on icy satellites. They have been inferred to form in the presence of a water-ice rich substrate; however, the process(es) responsible for their formation is still debated. Previous models invoke origins by either explosive excavation of potentially water-bearing crustal material, or by subsurface drainage of meltwater and/or collapse. If explosive excavation forms central pits, pit-derived ejecta should be draped around the pits, whereas internal collapse should not deposit significant material outside pit rims. Using visible wavelength images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) Context Camera (CTX) and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) instruments and thermal infrared images from the Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument, we conducted a survey to characterize, in detail, the global population of central pits in impact craters ≥10. km in diameter. We specifically examined the morphology and thermophysical characteristics of the pits for evidence of pit ejecta. Our analysis of thermal images suggests that coarse-grained materials are distributed proximally around many central pits on the floors of their host craters. The decrease in average grain size with distance from pit rims is consistent with pit-derived ejecta. These observations and interpretations better support an explosive origin for central pits on Mars than they do an origin of subsurface meltwater drainage and collapse of the overlying substrate. A major weakness to previous explosive central pit formation models is the inability for them to form pits late enough in the impact process to be preserved. To address this, we present an alternative "melt contact model" where a central uplift brings ice-bearing substrate into contact with impact melt to generate steam explosions and excavate central pits during the impact modification stage. Theoretical calculations show that more than enough thermal energy is available via impact melt from the host crater to form central pits by steam explosions, and such explosions would require only a modest amount (2-6% by volume) of uplifted water-ice. We therefore propose that central pits on Mars could have formed explosively by the interaction of impact melt and subsurface water-ice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-185
Number of pages11
StatePublished - May 5 2015


  • Cratering
  • Impact processes
  • Mars

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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