Degradation of the Lunar Surface by Small Impacts

Patrick O’Brien, Shane Byrne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The surfaces of airless bodies like the Moon are bombarded by a steady stream of small impactors that lead to erosion of the topography over time. However, the rate of degradation from small impacts, a key parameter in interpreting the ages of present-day lunar surface features, is not well constrained. Here we demonstrate, using a numerical mass transport model, that impact erosion is a nonlinear diffusion process, in contrast to past studies of crater degradation that have assumed that the downslope mass flux of ejecta is linearly proportional to hillslope gradient. Nonlinearity is a consequence of the asymmetric shape of ejecta blankets on sloped surfaces, and as a result, the degradation rate on steep slopes is over 40% greater than on nearly flat surfaces. Using measurements of the morphology and formation rate of small primary and secondary craters, the kilometer-scale lunar landscape diffusivity is computed and compared to the value inferred from topographic profiles of degraded craters. We show that the abundance of decameter-scale craters forming on the Moon over the past decade is consistent with small impacts dominating the erosion of the lunar landscape, but only if the primary size−frequency distribution remains steep down to the submillimeter scale.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number235
JournalPlanetary Science Journal
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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