Counting Craters

Renee Washart



Within the physics department here at Ursinus College, a team of five students along with their professor actively work towards achieving a new program designed to help anyone and everyone who’s interested to count and classify impact craters to better understand our solar system. With a grant from NASA to help further along the research, and a student-led presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, the group is paving the way for their studies to become open-access to all. Lead by Assistant Professor Kassandra “Kassie” Martin-Wells, Ph.D., Trae Perrine ‘24, Tyler Ways ‘24, Annalyse Dickinson ‘25, Gavin Soueidan ‘26, and McKenzie Synder ‘26, all work together to establish a method for crater classification.

2023 was the Year of Open Science, and one of NASA’s goals within that program was to try to promote projects that would allow science to be more open and transparent – so studies can be reproduced without paywalls or extensive prior experience in the area. NASA created the Research Initiation Award specifically aimed at institutions that did not typically get a lot of NASA money. Ursinus was grateful to be among the first schools selected to receive the RIA award, as only 18 out 73 applicants were chosen. This grant guarantees that the team can attend more conferences in the future, and potential plans to attend a conference taking place in Finland (2025) is in the works, something Synder is greatly looking forward to! With the development of their program, and the support of the grant, the team is securing their spot for their research to become publicly accessible to all. 

An impact crater is created when some kind of material from space comes in and essentially makes a big hole in a planetary surface – such as the Moon. One way to describe it would be “like if you buried a really really big nuclear weapon and detonated it, all the material that would get excavated from it,” says Dr. Martin-Wells. Within planetary science, impact craters can be used to understand how planetary surfaces change over time, since not a lot of other geology is occurring on the surfaces of those airless bodies. Another key use of impact craters is that scientists can use them to age-date everything in the solar system. The number of craters on the surface correlates to how old the system is. This can be an issue, however, because the rate of craters that can be ascribed to that “absolute model age” is only the material that came in to make the crater itself. Other craters, called secondary craters, can be created from those primary crater’s explosions, causing fragments and bits of rock to form their own dents after the original impact. Since the age-dating process only looks at primary craters, measures have to be taken to avoid counting secondary craters as well. How this problem can be solved, is one of the main issues this research group is working to tackle.

At the start of each semester, Martin-Wells sets a large outline of goals for the research group that the students have to figure out how to address and further on their own. Cultivating a student-led work environment pushes the group to collaborate with one another and create their own ideas. These ideas are put towards working on an automatic method that will help differentiate and characterize what certain craters are to help future people who may be less experienced in the area. Students such as Tyler Ways and Annalyse Dickinson, can often be found on Wednesday afternoons crafting a code for their developing program, while Gavin Soueidan and McKenzie Snyder observe their senior classmates with intentions to one day take it upon themselves.

Ways and Dickinson being on the older side of the group, and having previous summer fellows experience, lead the team in this coding process. The two have spent much time grappling with the program JMARS – Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing. “It’s a geospatial information system (GIS) developed by ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility to provide mission planning and data-analysis tools to NASA’s orbiters, instrument team members, students of all ages, and the general public,” according to  JMARS – A Planetary GIS. This program allows them to look at high-definition of craters on the moon, particularly the Tycho crater. The Tycho crater is one of the youngest craters on the moon, so its rays are very well preserved, making it of high interest for analysis.

Ways started as a crater counter his sophomore year with not a ton of knowledge on the subject, but a determination to develop a method to help other amateur crater counters achieve this counting better. His summer fellows research along with Dickinson led them to create size-frequency distribution graphs for different regions in varying ranges around Tycho in each of the 8 cardinal directions. After continuous work on this subject, the benefits paid off: Martin-Wells, Ways, and Dickinson were granted the opportunity to travel to The Woodlands, Texas to attend the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference earlier in the month.

The Lunar and Planetary Science Conference is a national conference – the first for both Dickinson and Ways. While attending, the trio was able to sit in on a variety of talks to first-hand witness the presentations of high-level research. There were many opportunities to network as well, and the group even got to meet one of the researchers who worked on the very camera they used the data from! Not only was it interesting, it was also inspiring. As Dickinson mentioned when recalling the conference, “It was reassuring that I do in fact, LOVE research. I love research. I will sit through hours and hours of talks.” Presenting a poster compiled with their research endeavors, at a national level conference, could not have been achieved without the recent grant Ursinus received from NASA, and the funding for Annalyse Dickinson granted by their status as an Andrews Fellow. 

The chance to provide for a bigger platform than themselves, is of great importance to each and every person in this lab. “I really love this research team. Kassie is great at organizing and giving us achievable tasks and making us feel proud of ourselves. We’re contributing to something bigger than us because once we leave it’ll just continue and then people will pick up where we left off. Especially now that we got the grant, it’s nice to know that we will be contributing to something,” says Dickinson.

For more information on the research being conducted, paper and summer fellows reports can be found on Digital Commons, and information on the RIA from NASA can be found on NASA’s website. Feel free to stop by Kassandra Martin-Wells’ office in Pfahler to ask any questions about what the group does!