It happens several times a week. Sometimes, it is only a brief flash of mysterious light that appears on the surface of Earth’s Moon, but there are also other strange lunar light shows that occur and they can last much longer. Fascinating regions also exist on the lunar surface that darken briefly. Earth’s Moon is a beguiling and beckoning object, whose bewitching silvery-golden glow in our planet’s clear night sky has been a source of mystery ever since our ancient ancestors first looked up at the sky in wonder, trying to understand the elusive meaning of our existence. In May 2019, a professor at the Julius-Maximillians-Universitat Wurzburg (JMU) in Bavaria announced that he wants to get to the bottom of these strange flashes of light on Earth’s mesmerizing and beautiful nighttime companion, that keeps its secrets well.
Astronomers do not know exactly why these fleeting flashes of light occur on our Moon. However, there have been many attempts to explain them. Perhaps they are caused by the impact of a meteor, or possibly they are triggered when electrically charged particles of the solar wind react with lunar dust?
“Seismic activities were also observed on the Moon. When the surface moves, gases that reflect sunlight could escape from the interior of the Moon. This would explain the luminous phenomena, some of which last for hours,” explained Dr. Hakan Kayal in a May 31, 2019 JMU Press Release. Dr. Kayal is a Professor of Space Technology at JMU.
Dr. Kayal is particularly intrigued by these appearances. “The so-called transcient lunar phenomena have been known since the 1950s, but they have not been sufficiently systematically and long term observed. This is currently changing,” added Dr. Kayal, who wants to discover their secret source.
As both the brightest and biggest body in the starlit night sky above our planet, Earth’s Moon has long inspired wonder.We are a curious species, and our Moon has bewitched us with its myriad mysteries. It has also served as an ancient symbol for that which is feminine, and it is associated with beauty and elusive love. Yet, even though we have sent our spacecraft to explore objects much farther away than our Moon, it remains the only body other than our own planet that we have walked upon, leaving our lingering footprints as relics in moondust.
All moons are defined as natural satellites that are in orbit around a planet that is kept in its orbit by both the parent-planet’s gravity and the gravity of the moon itself. While some planets have moons, others do not. The favored theory explaining the origins of Earth’s lunar companion propose that it formed as the result of a primordial collision between our ancient planet and a doomed Mars-sized protoplanet named Theia billions of years ago. According to this widely accepted Giant Impact Theory, the gigantic collision shot part of the ancient Earth’s crust into space. Some of this material was pulled by gravity into orbit around our planet, where it ultimately merged together to evolve into our Moon.
Even though our Moon is alone in its orbit around Earth, it is far from unique in our Solar System, that hosts more than 100 moons. Even though most of these moons are lifeless, frozen bodies composed primarily of ices and some rocky material, a few of them could potentially host some form of primitive life. Europa of Jupiter probably hides a subsurface global ocean of life-nurturing liquid water beneath its cracked shell of ice, that has been warmed by tidal flexing. It is possible that some as yet undiscovered forms of aquatic life swim around in this alien sea.
Titan of Saturn, the second-largest moon in our Sun’s family (after Ganymede of Jupiter), displays an intriguing environment that is eerily similar to that of the primordial Earth before life emerged and evolved on our planet (prebiotic). Lazy, large hydrocarbon raindrops pour down to the surface of this cold and tormented moon-world, and this “rain of terror”, composed of gasoline, creates seas and lakes filled with liquid methane and ethane that play the same important role as liquid water does on Earth. It has been proposed that life as we do not know it, swims around in Titan’s exotic seas. Life can emerge and thrive using liquids other than water.
Our Moon is in synchronous rotation with Earth. This means that it always shows the same face to our planet–termed the near side. The near side shows dark volcanic maria (Latin for “seas”) that fill the regions between the bright ancient crustal highlands and large impact craters.
Earth’s Moon is actually very dark, even though it seems to be very bright when it is compared to the rest of the night sky. Appearances can be deceiving. The lunar surface really has a reflectance that is just a bit higher than worn asphalt. The gravity of our Moon exerts a powerful gravitational influence on Earth, producing ocean tides, body tides, and a very small lengthening of terrestrial days.
The Moon’s average orbital distance from Earth is 238,856 miles, or 1.28 light-seconds. This orbital distance is approximately thirty times the diameter of our planet. Also, our Moon’s apparent size in the night sky is almost identical to that of our Sun. But, again, appearances can be deceiving. This is because our Star is about 400 times the lunar distance and diameter. For this reason, our Moon blocks out the Sun almost entirely every time there is a total solar eclipse.
In September 1959, the Soviet Union’s Luna 2, an unmanned spacecraft, made humanity’s historic first visit to the Moon. The United States’ NASA Apollo program achieved the only manned lunar missions to date. The Apollo mission began with the first manned orbital mission by Apollo 8 in 1968, followed by six manned landings between 1969 and 1972, with the first being Apollo 11. These historic missions returned Moon-rocks to Earth, and these lunar samples have provided precious information to scientists on our planet, enabling them to develop a geological understanding of the internal structure of our Moon, its origin, and its later evolutionary history. Ever since the 1972 Apollo 17 mission our Moon has been visited only by unmanned spacecraft.
Our lovely Moon’s prominence in our dark night sky, and its regular cycle of phases as viewed from our planet, have inspired myths and poetry since time immemorial. The lunar influence on human culture can be found in art, language, lunar calendar systems, folktales, fairy tales and mythology. Some cultures have seen a man’s face etched on the lunar surface–the Man in the Moon–while other civilizations have described a Moon Rabbit. Our full Moon has been blamed for a special form of madness–hence the word lunatic–but it has also inspired stories of romantic love and beautiful poetry. As William Shakespeare writes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet, Are of imagination all compact”.
Lovely Lunar Light Show
As a first step in his quest to discover the cause of the mysterious flashes of light on the Moon’s surface, Dr. Kayal’s team constructed a lunar telescope that went into operation in April 2019. The telescope was built in a private observatory in a rural area of Spain, approximately 100 kilometers north of Seville. The team chose Spain because “There are simply better weather conditions for observing the Moon than in Germany,” Dr. Kayal noted in the May 31, 2019 JMU Press Release.
The telescope is remote controlled from the JMU campus, and it is composed of a duo of cameras that keep a watchful stare on the lunar surface every night. Only if both cameras record a luminous flash simultaneously, will the two telescopes trigger additional actions. The telescopes will go on to store images and video sequences of the lunar light show and dispatch an e-mail message to Dr. Kayal and his team.
As of this writing, the system is not yet completely finished. This is because the software, which automatically spots the mysterious flashes of light and other light phenomena, is still being refined. Dr. Kayal’s future plans include the use of artificial intelligence–among other techniques. Neuronal networks ensure that the system will gradually learn to distinguish a light flash on the lunar surface from technical errors, as well as from some troublesome entities like birds and airplanes flying in front of the camera. Dr. Kayal thinks that another year of work will be necessary before this can be achieved.
For Dr. Kayal, reducing the possibility of false alarms as much as possible is only the first obstacle in the way. The system will eventually be used on a satellite mission. The cameras could then function in their orbit around the Earth or the Moon. Dr. Kayal hopes that this will achieve improved results. “We will then be rid of the disturbances caused by the atmosphere,” he explained in the May 31, 2019 JMU Press Release.
What will occur when the telescope has discovered a a lunar light show? Dr. Kayal’s team could then compare their new result with the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s), which also keeps a watchful eye on Earth’s Moon. “If the same thing was seen there, the event can be considered confirmed,” he went on to explain in the JMU Press Release. If necessary, additional joint research could then be initiated.
There is a great deal of international interest in solving the mystery of the light flashes on Earth’s Moon. China has started a comprehensive program to explore our planet’s nearest companion in space, and at the beginning of January 2019, it launched a probe that explored the far side of the Moon–the side that is always turned away from Earth. India is currently planning a mission very much like China’s. The United States, reacting to these international efforts, has also expressed a renewed interest in lunar exploration.
Both China and other players–for example, Space X–are also exploring the possibility of Earth’s Moon as a future habitat for human beings. In addition, there are precious raw materials on the Moon, such as rare metals that are necessary for smartphones and other devices.
Professor Kayal noted in the May 31, 2019 JMU Press Release that “Anyone who wants to build a lunar base at some point must of course be familiar with the local conditions.”
In the future, the true nature of the mysterious lunar light show will likely be revealed. Stay tuned.
Judith E. Braffman-Miller is a writer and astronomer whose articles have been published since 1981 in various journals, magazines, and newspapers. Although she has written on a variety of topics, she particularly loves writing about astronomy because it gives her the opportunity to communicate to others some of the many wonders of her field. Her first book, “Wisps, Ashes, and Smoke,” will be published soon.
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