Moon Explosion: How Massive Was The Meteorite That Recently Collided With The Lunar Surface? [VIDEO]

By iScienceTimes Staff on May 17, 2013 3:30 PM EDT

Moon
NASA astronomers say they have recently seen a moon explosion larger ten times brighter than anything they've ever seen. (Photo: NASA)

NASA astronomers say they've seen the biggest moon explosion since they started monitoring lunar meteor showers eight years ago.

The moon explosion occurred on March 17, when a meteorite the size of a boulder crashed into the lunar surface at 56,000 mph -- an impact as powerful as five tons of TNT -- leaving a 65-foot-wide crater. The resulting flash was nearly ten times as bright as anything the astronomers had ever seen before, said Bill Cooke, of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. In fact, the flash was so bright it could've been seen by anyone looking at the moon -- even without a telescope.

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"It jumped right out at me, it was so bright," said Ron Suggs, an analyst at the Marshall Space Flight Center, who was the first to notice the impact while reviewing moon video.

Unlike Earth, the moon has no atmosphere to protect it, so large objects slamming into its surface is common. Since NASA started scanning the moon for similar explosions eight years ago, they have witnessed 300 strikes. Most aren't as massive as what occurred on March 17.

NASA started the program, in part, to prepare for astronauts' eventual return to the moon. Scientists want to know how often these moon explosions occur and whether there's a pattern to them, so that moonwalkers aren't obliterated by rogue space rocks.

"We'll be keeping an eye out for signs of a repeat performance next year when the Earth-Moon system passes through the same region of space," Cooke said. "Meanwhile, our analysis of the March 17th event continues."

Cooke also thinks there is a relationship between the March 17 moon explosion and similar meteor activity on Earth that same day.

"On the night of March 17, NASA and University of Western Ontario all-sky cameras picked up an unusual number of deep-penetrating meteors right here on Earth," Cooke said. "These fireballs were traveling along nearly identical orbits between Earth and the asteroid belt."

That means that the Earth and moon were both hit with meteoroids around the same time.

"My working hypothesis is that the two events are related, and that this constitutes a short duration cluster of material encountered by the Earth-Moon system," Cooke added.

In a particularly fascinating footnote on NASA's website, they raise the question, If the moon has no oxygen, how can something explode there?

It turns out that lunar meteors strike surfaces with so much kinetic energy that even something as small as a pebble can make a crater several feet wide. The light that scientists, and moon-watchers, saw on March 17 didn't come from combustion, but from the "thermal glow of molten rock and hot vapors at the impact site."

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