The history of our solar system is written in impact craters, but these craters have been remarkably mysterious for years. Scientists knew that you could recreate many of their features by dropping solid objects into granular materials like sand, but this did not produce the distinctive rays that we see around many real craters (bottom image, Mars). It was only by watching videos of schoolchildren recreating these experiments that scientists discovered what they’d been doing wrong: they’d smoothed the sand’s surface first.
It turns out that when you smooth the sand before impact (top left), you get an even ejecta curtain with no rays. But when the surface is uneven, as it is in kids’ experiments or on actual planetary bodies, suddenly rays form (top right). The object’s impact creates a shock wave in the granular medium, which becomes a rarefaction (i.e., expansion) wave when it reaches the surface. This is what actually ejects material. The uneven surface focuses those rarefaction waves, creating the distinctive ejecta rays. (Image credit: T. Sabawala et al., source; NASA; research credit: T. Sabawala et al.; via Jennifer O.)