SPACE scientists at Aberystwyth University have reported what they believe to be the first confirmed sighting of a Lunar Impact Flash to be recorded in the British Isles.
The flash was recorded on the southern hemisphere of the Moon and probably caused by a small meteorite the size of a golf ball hitting the surface.
Lasting less that one tenth of a second, the image was caught on New Year’s Day on a remotely operated telescope at Aberystwyth University by space scientist Dr Tony Cook.
Dr Cook is a former researcher at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC in the US and has an archive of Lunar Impact Flashes dating back to the early 2000s.
The first confirmed recordings of lunar impact flashes were by amateur astronomers in the US during the Leonid meteor shower of November 1999.
Dr Cook’s latest sighting, the first in the British Isles, has been corroborated by a team of Italian astronomers.
It also forms part of a final year research project undertaken by Astrophysics student Matthew Menzies who is looking at ways of improving how these impacts are recorded and measured.
The findings will be presented at the European Planetary Science Congress which takes place in the Latvian capital Riga later this year.
“Lunar Impact Flashes are notoriously difficult to record” said Dr Cook.
“The meteorite would be travelling at anywhere between 10 to 70 km per second as it hit the surface of the Moon. That is the equivalent of travelling from Aberystwyth to Cardiff in just a few seconds, and the resulting impact would be over in a fraction of a second.”
“A similar meteorite hitting the Earth’s atmosphere would produce a beautiful shooting star, but as the Moon has no atmosphere it slams into the surface, causing a crater the size of very large pot hole.
"Just under one per cent of the meteorite’s energy is converted into a flash of light, which we were able to record here in Aberystwyth.”
Scientists estimate the Moon is hit by similar sized meteorites as often as once every 10 to 20 hours.
However, the impact flashes are so faint that they are only visible on the night side of the Moon using a telescope.
Possible sightings of Lunar Impact Flashes have been recorded over the centuries. As early as 1178 monks in Canterbury noticed a plume of light on the edge of the Moon, the British amateur astronomer F.H. Thornton saw a brilliant flash of light inside the crater Plato in 1948, and in 1953 American amateur astronomer Leon Stuart photographed a long duration flash near the lunar crater Pallas.