Getting flashed by the Moon?

By March 3rd, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Comment

Monitor the rates and sizes of meteoroids striking the moon with the Lunar Impact Monitoring project.

Citizen science after hours…here are some citizen science projects you can do at night.

Moon-craters

By now you’ve probably seen Gravity, and maybe you figured real astronauts don’t have to worry about projectiles, flying debris, or explosions. After all, the stars seem so calm from Earth, and the only turbulence we see on the surface of the moon are the waves breaking its reflection over the river. But sometimes, if you look long enough (even with the naked eye), you can spot a meteorite hurtling into Earth’s atmosphere with a flash. Approximately 73,000 lbs, about two large truckloads, of rock streaks through the Earth’s atmosphere each day. Earth’s atmosphere causes the meteorites to burn out before they do any damage, but the Moon has no protection against meteorites and neither do spacecraft or astronauts who might be working on or near the Moon. Potential for catastrophe? Worthy of little globes of Sandra Bullock tears? I’d say so.

To understand what risk these meteorites pose to spacecraft and their crews working in the lunar environment, astronauts have to know how often meteorites impact the moon, what size, and with how much force. Astronomers have been able to see the meteorites hitting the Moon for years – it doesn’t take much. When a meteorite strikes the Moon, it explodes in a flash that can be caught with only an 8 to 14 inch telescope and a clear sky. Since 2006, NASA astronomers like Rob Suggs say they “point telescopes at the night portion of the moon and record video from sensitive cameras,” which they analyze later. Simple as that, the Lunar Impact Monitoring Project at NASA was born.

Image courtesy of George Varros. A lunar impact flash on the Moon from March 13, 2008.

Suggs says NASA began seeking out the help of citizen scientists immediately: “Many amateur astronomers have equipment similar to what we use.” By having more eyes on the moon, NASA can greatly increase the likelihood of seeing a lunar impact flash. The scientists want to be able to see as much as possible but sometimes, Suggs says, “we are clouded out or the Moon has set at our observatories while the Moon may still be visible from an amateur astronomer’s backyard.”

And sometimes amateur astronomers are the ones who end up seeing the impact. George Varros, a citizen scientist volunteer who has been involved with the Lunar Impact Monitoring Project since 2006, has already caught several impacts on camera. Varros first got involved with the project in part because of a lifelong love of astronomy, but he also says he recognized NASA was asking the amateur astronomy community to do “solid science, and it was not very difficult to do.” Even so, Varros says that the work “does take an effort and several hours, several nights, of imaging might elapse before you record [an impact],” but the wait is well worth it. Capturing an image, he says, is the best part. Already, the project has been able to catch the birth of a new crater and 300 flashes.

Once an image is caught on tape, NASA scientists can try to correlate the impact with a meteor shower they know about and use that information to learn the speed and size of the meteorite.  Often, these meteorite can fly through space eighty times faster than the fastest jet on Earth. So far, meteorites haven’t been known to destroy any spacecraft, but some people say that some in-space anomalies – bumps and bruises – have been from meteorites.

Whatever violence the rocks are causing up in space, lunar monitoring is still a peaceful experience from Earth. Suggs says it’s been thrilling to see impacts from the project and “seeing the new crater that Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter detected from our March 17, 2013, impact was extremely exciting and satisfying.” But his favorite part of the project is still sitting out and watching the sky. Suggs says, “I enjoy the observing: just me and the telescopes and the Moon in the middle of the night.”

Images: Wikimedia (top), courtesy of George Varros (GIF)


Angus Chen is the managing editor for the SciStarter Blog network which includes the Discover magazineCitizen Science Salon” blog and the Public Library of Science’s Cit Sci blog. He’s also a freelance reporter and producer at WNYC Public Radio on “The Takeaway” with Public Radio International and the NY Times. You can also read his work with Science magazine. He was once a scientist studying geology and ecology, but now spends his days typing and scribbling and sketching furiously. 

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