Saturday, January 26, 2019

Meteoroid Hits Moon During Total Lunar Eclipse

Amateur astronomer Christian Fröschlin of the Netherlands captured this amazing still image of the impact, which appeared on one of the 9,000 images he made of the eclipse. Click the image for a full-frame view. Credit: Christian Fröschlin

Astronomers are saying it might be the first known event of its kind, a flash of light seen during a total lunar eclipse. The eclipse took place during the night of January 20-21, 2019, and many caught it on film. But some sharp-eyed photographers and livestream viewers also noticed a flash on one edge of the moon, as a rock from space struck the surface of Earth’s companion world, just as the total eclipse was beginning.

The flash appeared west of Mare Humorum (Sea of Moisture) southwest of the crater Byrgius at 4:41:38 UT (11:41 p.m. EST) only seconds into totality. We don't know how big the object was, though I've seen it described as possibly "the size of a football," but it slammed into the moon within a few kilometers of latitude 29.47° south, longitude 67.77° west.

Flashes on the moon have been reported before, but never on a moon in eclipse, to our knowledge. The flashes tend to be faint and short lived, and, when one occurs, astronomers want to check to be sure the flash isn’t from a camera, and not the moon itself.

Lunar impacts occur all the time. What makes this event so unusual are the circumstances — it happened during a total eclipse watched by millions of people across half the Earth, making it the most widely observed and recorded lunar impact ever.

NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO), in collaboration with the Marshall Space Flight Center's Space Environments Team, uses twin 14-inch telescopes equipped with video cameras to keep watch for lunar flashes between new and first quarter and again between last quarter and new. Full and gibbous phases are avoided because there's little to no dark portion against which to see impacting meteoroids — except of course when the moon is in total eclipse!

Between 2005 and April 2018 the MEO recorded 435 flashes from meteoroid collisions. Most were bright enough to show in amateur scopes had someone kept a steady watch.

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