The human species may not (yet) have encountered extraterrestrial life, but our planet is pockmarked with the scars of alien visitors of a different sort: the giant rocks that have come hurling out of space over the millennia, hitting the Earth’s surface with such force a gaping hole is left behind as a cosmic souvenir.

There is a certain unearthly beauty to these meteorite craters dotting the planet. In fact their unique geology has been used as an analogue for outer space to help astronauts train for the Moon landing or missions to Mars. Others have given rise to gorgeous lakes and ancient cults or wiped out the dinosaurs and other forms of life on the planet.

Whatever their effect, each of these nine impact craters in the Atlas has a story that’s quite literally out of the world.

1. Ancient Cult of Kaali Meteorite Crater


Panorama of Kaali crater on Saaremaa, Estonia.

Panorama of Kaali crater on Saaremaa, Estonia. (Photo: Mannobult/CC BY-SA 3.0)

About 7,500 years ago, a huge rock from space came hurtling toward the Earth, leaving nine total craters on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. It was the last giant meteorite impact to occur in a densely populated region, and you can hardly blame the ancient peoples of Kaali for operating a mysterious ancient cult around the resulting landscape.

The most interesting crater in the field is the largest, Kaali crater, a gently sloping bowl filled with stagnant, murky water. It is believed to have been a sacred site for many centuries, in part due to its cosmic origin. Archaeologists believe it is possible the site served as a stronghold for an ancient cult settlement: As evidenced by the unusually large quantity of animal bones found around its borders, the Kaali crater lake was not only a watering hole but also a place of sacrifice. Some even believe that ancient offerings still remain undiscovered at the bottom of the lake.

2. A Town Built in a Crater


(Photo: Michiel1972/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nordlingen is a town nearly 15 million years in the making. Although it has only been populated in a modern sense for the last 1,200 years, the town is neatly centered in the middle of a crater caused by a giant meteor crashing into the Bavarian countryside.

Miraculously, the meteor left a perfectly bowl-shaped depression about 100 to 150 meters into the earth, forming a unique valley for the town. Fully embracing their cosmic past, Nordlingen residents have incorporated many parts of the meteor into the structures of the town. The church is even encrusted with meteorites.

3. Chicxulub Crater — Where the Fate of the Dinosaurs Was Sealed


Imaging from NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission STS-99 reveals part of the 180 km (110 mi) diameter ring of the crater. The numerous sinkholes clustered around the trough of the crater suggest a prehistoric oceanic basin in the depression left by the impact.

Imaging from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission STS-99 reveals part of the 180 km (110 mi) diameter ring of the crater. The numerous sinkholes clustered around the trough of the crater suggest a prehistoric oceanic basin in the depression left by the impact. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Public Domain)

Some 65 million years ago, an asteroid or comet the size of a small city came hurdling towards Earth. With a force of 100 million megatons of TNT (two million times stronger than the most powerful man-made bomb), it crashed into our planet and created catastrophic consequences for both the dinosaurs and all other life.

The explosion’s shockwaves triggered earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, mega-tsunamis, and global firestorms. A cloud of dust covered the Earth, blocking sunlight and preventing photosynthesis for years.

Buried beneath thousands of feet of limestone in the Yucatán Peninsula, the remains of the Chicxulub Crater spans over 110 miles wide, with about half of it resting below the Caribbean Sea. After millions of years of erosion and sedimentation, however, evidence of the cataclysmic event is hard to see today. Even standing high above the crater’s center, the impact’s effects are not apparent. Perhaps the most telling features of the surrounding landscape are the cenotes. These water-filled sinkholes, once used by the Mayans in sacrificial ceremonies, dot the crater’s edge where the rock was weakened.

4. The World’s Purest Freshwater Lake


(Photo: NASA)

This almost perfectly circular lake of the Ungava Peninsula in Quebec, Canada, was formed by a meteorite plummeting from space and impacting the earth almost 1.4 million years ago. The lake is made unique by its lack of inlets or outlets. Precipitation is the only source of water, and loss of water can only be the result of evaporation. As a result it is one of the clearest lakes in the world, and is said to be the purist freshwater lake on Earth. 

A similar geological anomaly is found some 4,200 miles to the east, in Romania, where the Lacul Sfanta Ana crater lake is likewise supplied exclusively by rainwater and precipitation in the area, making the water held inside of the crater lake almost as pure as the distilled water one can buy in a store.

5. The World’s Largest Impact Crater


The Vredefort Impact Crater

(Photo: Julio Reis/NASA/Public Domain)

In the small village of Vredefort, a huge bowl is all that remains from the largest impact crater in the history of the Earth. Today the crater has largely flattened with erosion; the remaining ripples and rings of the huge earthen wound are only fully visible from space. Yet it serves as a reminder of the planet’s violent past and possible future. 

The original crater is thought to have been around 190 miles in diameter, and is one of the only ancient impact sites to feature multiple rings, which speaks to the sheer violence of the collision that occurred billions of years ago.

6. Wolfe Creek Crater


(Photo: Stephan Ridgway/CC BY 2.0)

A well-preserved crater in the Australian outback marks the earth-fall of a giant meteorite that scarred the planet with its arrival thousands of years ago. And the ancient meteor that left this picturesque hole must have been huge. The space rock likely touched down around 300,000 years ago.

The diameter of the crater stretches to almost 3,000 feet, and is almost 200 feet deep. Given these measurements, researchers theorize that the hole was probably created by a meteor of some 50,000 tons. Supposedly small fragments of the original meteor can still be found littering the area.

7. The Closest Thing To Mars on Earth


Photos from the 2009 mission

From the 2009 FMARS mission (Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station) created by the Mars Society. (Photo: Mars Society/Used with Permission)

Roughly 23 million years ago, a large rock hit the earth near what is now Northern Canada, resulting in the Haughton Crater, one of the world’s northernmost impact craters. The crater lies in a type of polar desert environment called a “frost rubble zone”. It is the only impact crater known to exist in such an environment, which, among other factors, makes the freezing, desert-like landscape the closest approximation to the Martian environment that can be found on Earth. It has made the crater an excellent practice ground and research site for what one day may be the first human voyage to a neighboring planet.

While Haughton’s arctic conditions make it a unique Mars analogue, it is certainly not the only crater used to approximate outer space. In a remote volcanic field in the Nevada desert, the Lunar Crater was used to train astronauts for moon landings. The basin looks much like a meteor crater, and the site was selected as one of the several “Terrestrial Analogue Sites” used by NASA.

Over in Arizona, the agency used hundreds of pounds of dynamite to blast out a fake Moon field to test the Moon landing on a field of manmade craters on a former volcano site (chosen because its volcanic gravel was similar to Moon rock). Astronauts also used the desolate, alien landscape of the Hole in the Ground crater in central Oregon (thought to be of volcanic origin, rather than the result of an ancient meteor impact) to train for landing on the Moon.

8. Meteor Crater


Aerial view of Meteor Crater

Aerial view of Meteor Crater. (Photo: Shane Torgerson/CC BY 3.0)

Crater under a big sky. (Photo: Alan Levine/CC BY 2.0)

50,000 years ago, give or take, a meteorite came screaming from the sky and slammed into the Earth, leaving a scar across the Arizona landscape. It’s known simply as “Meteor Crater” to most, but scientists call it the “Barringer Crater” after Daniel Barringer, the man who first suggested that the giant hole was made by a flying space rock.

In 1903, along with his partner, mathematician and physicist Benjamin Chew Tilghman, Barringer conducted land surveys and collected documentation supporting his meteor theory. Despite his efforts, he was met with skepticism and disbelief from the scientific community. Planetary science didn’t mature enough for geologists to swallow Barringer’s impact theory until the ’50s and ’60s. Unfortunately, Barringer died in 1929 and was never vindicated in life. Eugene M. Shoemaker, who discovered the minerals, was given credit as the man who uncovered the first unarguable proof of extraterrestrial impact.

9. Upheaval Dome


An aerial view of Upheaval Dome

An aerial view of Upheaval Dome. (Photo: Doc Searls/CC BY 2.0)

This raised bullseye visible from space was the subject of an intense geologic controversy for decades. Scientists disputed whether Upheaval Dome was the result of a meteorite impact or the remnants of an ancient salt dome, which are common in southeastern Utah. The geological details didn’t quite align with either theory. The layers that make up Upheaval Dome form a raised, roughly circular shape, surrounded by a ring-like depression. It doesn’t quite look like anything else on earth.

In recent years, the meteorite hypothesis has taken the lead. The theory is that the current Upheaval Dome is an impact crater that has been modified considerably from its original form. Around 60 million years ago, scientists argue, a meteorite hit the site and created only a partially-collapsed crater. The discovery of shocked quartz seemed to settle the matter, as quartz can only exist in such a form after undergoing incredible pressure—exactly like the pressure generated by a massive rock from space hurtling into the ground.