Another lunar impact!

By Phil Plait | June 19, 2006 10:38 pm

I’m a couple of days behind on this one, but it’s too cool not to post about.

Stuff hits the Moon all the time — in fact, I just blogged about this recently. All that junk orbiting the Sun sometimes hits us, and we see a meteor. The Moon is smaller, and has less gravity, so it gets hit less often, but it does get the occasional smacking.

Some NASA scientists got one on video recently. That is very cool. Years ago, I was thinking of getting some funding to monitor the Moon with a small telescope and a video camera; the idea would be to take every frame of video and subtract the frame before it. Any change would pop up as a bright spot in the image. I thought about it quite a bit, and decided it would take too much effort on my part, and I dropped it.

But others had the same idea, and implemented it. That’s where the video above came from (click it for a link to a bigger version). Now, without outside verification it’s not possible to know if this is an impact for sure or not, but it seems likely. The flash represents the sort of impact you’d expect randomly, and the way it brightens and dims also is consistent with an impact. What we need are ‘scopes separated around the Earth viewing this, so we do get independent confirmation.

By studying these impacts we can get a better handle on how much stuff is out there and how often it hits the Moon. In 50 years, folks will be making their homes on the Moon, and this might have an immediate effect on their living conditions!’

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science

Comments (12)

  1. My neighbor Wes Swift was a part of this project. Last winter he tested the video system up at the local astronomy club observatory. He mounted the camera on the side of the dome, pointed it north, started the recorder and hunkered downstairs to shoot the breeze with a couple of us. About 1AM we saw a dazzling meteor flash on the monitor, a big streak across the patch of sky covered by the (~15-degree) camera field of view. We paused for a half-second, looked at each other, then bounded up and started to run outside only to meet simultaneously in the doorway. A true 3 Stooges moment! Once safely outdoors, we could see the trail for a few seconds in the northern sky. Inside, the camera recorded the trail for several minutes before it dissipated.

    When I first saw this video I wondered if it could be a small head-on meteor. But I suppose they think the flash’s rise and fall likely indicates an impact. Coo00l.

  2. So is anyone following up to look for a fresh crater? A 14-meter crater may be too small to see with a ground-based telescope (.007 arc seconds), but perhaps there’s a wider splash of bright ejecta that would show up.

    And, of course, SMART-1 is still orbiting the Moon. Does its path take it in view of the impact site?

  3. Berlie

    According to NASA’s website,, it was a student member of the observing team that noticed the impact. How cool would that be?!

    The same article also talks about how this study can help them find out about how often this happens. Which can have a major impact (pun intended) on a future base on the moon. I recommend the article, as well as the website. It’s because of NASA’s website that I found out about BA, and nearly every lunch hour since then has been spent either here or there.

  4. Pete

    What makes the flash?

  5. Irishman

    Impact of the meteor onto the Moon releases energy from the collision. Ergo, flash of light.

  6. Tony

    If there is a new crater, who gets to name it? I am assuming, of course, that every crater on the moon has a name, and I could be wrong on that. Even if some craters don’t have names, this one should be named, since it’s creation has been documented.

  7. Tom K

    Tony says:

    …I am assuming, of course, that every crater on the moon has a name, and I could be wrong on that.

    The surface of the moon is nothing but craters, from the miles-wide impact basins to the tiny pockmarks of interplanetary dust which create the “softened” look of the surface. But if we can pinpoint this one yeah, it oughta get a name.

  8. That’s really great. Too bad you follow through.

    What you would name the new crater?

  9. Robert Carnegie

    I think I was told a while back that the Apollo equipment is too small to see with any telescope (the laser reflectors are a “cheat” for this), but there has been considerable development in instruments very recently, plus survey satellites. Nevertheless, has the entire Moon been sufficiently well photographed ahead of time to find good “before” and “after” pictures? At least, to say “this wasn’t here before” and then in a hi-rez picture “that must be it, and it looks like God dropped a water bomb in his sandpit”.

    I saw it reported as “We have it in mind that one of these things could hit the next moon base”. Well, the moon base is probably about as safe on any given day as a moon rocket of equivalent size, yes? Give or take the quantity of loose junk that we have successfully boosted into low earth orbit; a more bad place to be, if you worry about that. James White wrote a couple of science fiction stories about… well, I think “Deadly Litter” is one. So anyway… unlikely as it is, I suppose we still want to take precautions so we don’t lose a /whole/ moon base at a stroke.

    I think I’d be more worried about radiation. So a deep underground moon bunker is good for both, right?

  10. Pete

    Energy? Lot’s of things use/create energy that don’t produce light. Surely most of the energy would be bouncing rock around. I’m only a kid, and (obviously) no expert but two rocks hitting each other doesn’t create light, does it?

  11. PK

    Pete says: What makes the flash?

    Despite the short response by Irishman, this is actually a good question. There are two answers, (1) thermodynamical, and (2) microscopical:

    (1) Thermodynamically, the meteor and the moon rock heat up to very high temperatures right after the moment of impact. Since rock is approximately a black body, it emits black body radiation, which depends on the temperature. If the temperature is high enough, this radiation is in the optical spectrum. However, this is not really an explanation, just a phenomenological description. To really understand what’s going on, we need to look at the atoms and electrons in the rocks:

    (2) Microscopically, shockwaves through the rock excite the atoms and molecules in the rock to higher energy levels. When the electrons relax to lower energy levels, they emit photons. Hence the light.

  12. Pete

    Thanks, that really helps!


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