Astronomers Commit To Discovering The Origin Of The Moon’s Mysterious Flashes

A meteor impacting the Moon during the last lunar eclipse. Griffiths observatory. 

Homo sapiens have looked at the Moon for tens of thousands of years, and yet our natural satellite continues to hold many secrets. Among them are the transient lunar phenomena. These events are varied in nature and origin: some are bright flashes on the Moon’s surface, others are a peculiar darkening, there are those that last for a blink of an eye, and still some remain for several hours.

Researchers from the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Germany are now studying these phenomena with an ad-hoc telescope built in Spain. The telescope is located in a private observatory 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Seville. They believe understanding such events is important, especially considering the several plans humanity has for the Moon.

Some of the light phenomena are caused by meteorites impacting the Moon, as was serendipitously recorded during the lunar eclipse last January. It's also possible electrically charged solar wind particles may be responsible for some of the bright flashes. There may also be a release of underground gases from small tremors (the moonquakes) that can shake our satellite.

"The so-called transient lunar phenomena have been known since the 1950s, but they have not been sufficiently systematically and long-term observed," project leader Hakan Kayal, professor of Space Technology at JMU, said in a statement.

The telescope is completely automatic, and the team is currently working on improvements to the artificial intelligence software that will keep track of the flashes. The team needs to ensure the software can dismiss technical faults, as well as planes, birds, or artificial satellites that appear over the surface of the Moon in the sky.

The Moon is currently experiencing a renaissance of exploration, led by Chinese efforts that have recently placed a lander on its far side. NASA also has new plans for the Moon, which are expected to culminate in crewed landing missions. The European and the Russian Space Agencies have plans for permanent settlements.

"Anyone who wants to build a lunar base at some point must, of course, be familiar with the local conditions," explained Professor Kayal.

The team is confident the question of what’s causing the transient lunar phenomena will be answered before humans return to the surface of the Moon.

The observatory in Spain. The Würzburg telescope is in one of the containers. Credit: Hakan Kayal / Universität Würzburg



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