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Transient Lunar Phenomena: Mysterious Flashes on the Moon

Updated on September 21, 2012
Transient lunar phenomenon observed November 17, 2006 from separate telescopes at the Automated Lunar and Meteor Observatory (ALaMO).
Transient lunar phenomenon observed November 17, 2006 from separate telescopes at the Automated Lunar and Meteor Observatory (ALaMO). | Source

For centuries, astronomers have been puzzled by mysterious bright flashes that can occasionally be seen on the surface of the moon. Recorded sightings of these flashes date back to the 6th Century, and they have been seen by casual observers, dedicated astronomers, and Apollo astronauts in lunar orbit.

There have been a number of potential causes suggested for these Transient Lunar Phenomena, or TLPs - meteorite impacts, outgassing, moonquakes, and electrostatic phenomena. Other studies have questioned the existence of these phenomena, suggesting that they are likely caused by reflections from Earth-orbiting satellites, atmospheric interference, or are simply a result of observer error.

A new paper by a group of French astrophysicists provides some strong evidence that meteorites are indeed the cause of these fascinating phenomena. According to lead author Sylvain Bouley of the Institut de Mécanique Céleste et de Calcul des Ephémérides in Paris, a meteorite as small as 10 centimeters in diameter could produce a flash visible from Earth.

The authors of the paper, which will appear in the March 2012 issue of the journal Icarus, analyzed video recordings of TLPs made between 1999 and 2007. They noted the duration, intensity, and likely origin of the meteorites - known meteor showers versus sporadic events - and used this in conjunction with known models of black-body radiation to calculate the total radiated energy from the events.

The flashes, they concluded, are likely the result of superheated melt droplets kicked up by high-speed impacts. As these droplets cool, their energy is radiated into space as visible light, producing the transient lunar phenomena observed from Earth.

Approximate distribution of transient lunar phenomena. Note the apparent grouping around mare/highland boundaries.
Approximate distribution of transient lunar phenomena. Note the apparent grouping around mare/highland boundaries. | Source

"Hey, Houston. I'm looking north up toward Aristarchus now, and I can't really tell at that distance whether I am really looking at Aristarchus, but there's an area that is considerably more illuminated than the surrounding area. It just has—seems to have a slight amount of fluorescence to it."


- Michael Collins
Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot
July 19, 1969, 6:44 p.m. UTC

Aristarchus and Herodotus craters taken from orbit during the Apollo 15 mission.
Aristarchus and Herodotus craters taken from orbit during the Apollo 15 mission. | Source

Case Closed... Or Is It?

A prior study by Columbia University astronomy professor Arlin Crotts found strong correlations between TLPs and detected releases of Radon-222 gas on the Moon. The distribution of these lunar phenomena on the Moon's surface also shows a strong correlation with the boundary regions between mare regions and the lunar highlands.

In this study, transient lunar phenomena also appeared to be centered around significant impact craters, particularly the Plato crater on the northeastern shore of the Mare Imbrium and the prominent Aristarchus crater on the northeast portion of the Moon's near side. In 1969, an event was observed in the Aristarchus crater by German astronomers, then confirmed visually by the Apollo 11 astronauts while in lunar orbit.

The Crotts study suggested that the primary origin of these flashes may not be meteorites, but outgassing resulting from landslides of geologically-recent crater material, and ongoing lunar tectonic activity that has been detected by seismometers left on the Moon by the Apollo missions.

Both studies concluded that more data and better observing techniques were needed to fully address the outstanding questions in these still-mysterious flashes. Though these recent findings provide some interesting clues, it appears that this mystery may not be solved any time soon.

Poll Time

What do you think is the cause of transient lunar phenomena?

See results

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    • Lady Wordsmith profile image

      Linda Rawlinson 5 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Interesting hub. I'm just starting to get very interested in popular science, at the age of 34. A late starter! Absolutely fascinating though. I was listening to a scientist the other night talking about future missions to the moon (unmanned, for now) and about all of the research they want to do there. It was great to hear that our appetite for learning about the moon, and for going back there, hasn't diminished.

      Anyway, great hub. I can't comment in detail about what you've said, because I'm still a beginner!

      Linda.

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      Thank you, Lady Wordsmith! Our moon is a fascinating place, and one we still know surprisingly little about.

    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 5 years ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Do you think we will have a Moon Base or Station in our lifetimes, say the next 40 of 50 years?

      What is your thinking on why we haven't returned, assuming of course that we got there initially?

      Also why do think the commercial aspects haven't been explored, surely a large mining consortium would have the resources to go there, without the need for public funding.

      Your thoughts . . .

    • sparkster profile image

      Marc Hubs 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Bahahaha

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      We haven't been back to the Moon because it's a very expensive trip and Congress no longer wanted to pay for it. Our motives were about politics, not science, and once we'd beaten the Soviets much of the public lost interest.

      Private companies may go someday, but there would have to be some very valuable commodity there to justify the huge expense.

    • sparkster profile image

      Marc Hubs 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      They are mining for corbamite (element 140) on the moon.

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      Ohhhh, right. Element 140. Silly me - here I was thinking the periodic table only went up to 112.

      Corbomite only exists in the Star Trek universe, not this one. And even there it was fabricated by Captain Kirk.

    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 5 years ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Well I would agree with that except for the fact that the Apollo missions 18 and 19 were already paid for by the US taxpayers, the Rockets made, the crews trained and ready to go and for reasons not explained by NASA the missions were scrubbed.

      The numerous space shuttle flights were not cheap, actually more expensive than the Apollo missions, so I can't buy into the too expensive argument, the public has never lost interest.

      See the thing about Moon exploration is that sending probes isn't going to be enough, we need to actually go there and find out.

      For years I read about riding a horse but until I actually got on the horse and started to ride it I really didn't get the whole experience.

      I guess my question is why 'talk about Mars' when the Moon is right there? See the Moon wasn't the publics idea in the first place, we just paid for it and got nothing in return.

      There is something more to this story and what I'm trying to find out is what folks think it is, but saying it is too expensive is holding back, tell me what you really think?

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      Nixon wanted to cancel 16 and 17, too, I understand. It was only after an extensive lobbying effort by Caspar Weinberger that he relented.

      I know it's not as exciting as a secret Manthourian moon base occupied by colonists from Tau Ceti c, but money rules everything around Washington. The main goal of the Apollo moon program had been met, Skylab was under construction, and new ambitious plans for the Space Shuttle had the usual suspects in the defense industry salivating at the chance to design and build a new space vehicle.

      Sure, there was some taxpayer money wasted in the Saturn Vs and service modules and lunar modules that became very expensive museum pieces, but if you're a member of Congress that's small change compared to the chance to bring a lucrative shuttle-building contract home to your district.

      When you look at the history of space exploration as a whole, it doesn't make much sense that we went to the moon and didn't go back. When you look at it as a series of two-year election cycles paid for by lobbyists from Lockheed and Grumman, it makes perfect sense.

    • sparkster profile image

      Marc Hubs 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      You're right, it was in Star Trek. Must be how Phil Schneider got confused. Silly me.

      Periodic table only goes up to 112? In school I was taught that there were hidden elements and that the periodic table goes further but they were forbidden.

      And what about Ununpentium (element 115)? - http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Element_...

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      I think that's the one they were trying to get in Avatar. I dunno - I never saw it. 3D movies give me nausea.

    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 5 years ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Avatar wasn't 3D, I wrote a hub article about it that I think is pretty good. If you have every read the genesis story in the Urantia Book, it is very much like the Avatar story.

      But your right money talks and BS walks, or at least that is what the Brother's around 14th and T Streets NW say . . .

      . . . I went to Wakefield High School in Arlington, VA a long time ago, perhaps you are familiar with it?

    • profile image

      Joan Whetzel 5 years ago

      This a fascinating area of astronomy and lunar sciences. Intriguing mystery.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Aaah the moon... made me wonder if I ever want to visit the moon someday! LOL What has gotten into me when I read your hub!

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! Simply click on this link to read the juicy details and where you can read and vote too! http://pattyinglishms.hubpages.com/hub/Presidents-...

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 5 years ago from Western Australia

      Read about it in my favourite Australian Science magazine 'Cosmos', but your hub gave me another perspective:)

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 5 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      i had never heard of TLP's ... thanks for the information.

      It will now be filed away in my subconscious never to be found again ... sadly. But you never know, I may have the chance to drag it out and use it sometime.

      Congratulations on producing a useful and interesting HubNugget ...

    • Insane Mundane profile image

      Insane Mundane 5 years ago from Earth

      @somethgblue: You do realize that the aliens basically own the backside of the moon, right? There has been turmoil between the Greys and the Reptilians, although, via my probe picking up signals from an interstellar beacon, there is a lot of complaints about "space junk" orbiting the Earth right now, as it is a bitch for those UFOs during rush hour... Ha!

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      Aliens own the backside of the moon? Wow! Are they mining corbomite, too?

    • profile image

      RationalObserver 4 years ago

      No they are not mining for corbormite, rather a more exotic and valuable metal. Unobtainium...

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