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A meteorite smashed into the Moon in January creating a crater 15 meters wide. News of the collision has just been published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
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Those closely observing the Moon during the lunar eclipse at the start of the year would have noticed a flash when the crash occurred. The meteorite is thought to have been traveling at 61,000 kilometers per hour. Fast enough to cross the United States in just minutes.
MIDAS captures the exact moment of collision
Astronomers were able to capture the exact moment the meteorite slammed into the Moon, measuring a 0.28-second flash from the impact.
Jose Maria Madiedo, an astrophysicist at the University of Huelva in Spain and lead author on the new study into the collision said they had a feeling they might see something special. "Something inside of me told me that this time would be the time," he said.
Madiedo and fellow astrophysicist Jose Ortiz, of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, caught the flash from the impact on video using the Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System (MIDAS). MIDAS is a network of eight telescopes in southern Spain that monitors the Moon's surface.
Flash capture will help future Moon missions
MIDAS was able to record the flash at multiple wavelengths (different colors of light), which means there is lots of data for scientists to analyze. The meteorite was estimated to have a mass of 45 kg and be around 30 to 60 centimeters across.
It hit with an energy impact as equivalent to 1.5 tonnes of TNT, creating a crater about the size of two double-decker buses side by side. The Moon has no atmosphere so small rocks can reach and hit its surface.
These impacts occur at super high speeds which vaporizes the pace rocks upon impact causing an expanding plume of debris which can be seen from Earth as a short flash. The impact site is close to the crater Lagrange H, near the west-south-west portion of the lunar limb.
The data from the collision will be used to better understand the Moon but also analyses potential impacts from space rocks with the earth. “It would be impossible to reproduce these high-speed collisions in a lab on Earth. Observing flashes is a great way to test our ideas on exactly what happens when a meteorite collides with the Moon,” said Madiedo.
The Spanish based team will continue to monitor the Moon's surface with special regard to what threat meteorites might play for future Moon missions. NASA is planning a mission back to the Moon in 2028. Speaking at a conference in February NASA chair Jim Bridenstine said:
"This time, when we go to the Moon we're going to stay. So, we're not going back to the Moon to leave flags and footprints and then not go back for another 50 years. We're going to go sustainably. To stay. With landers and robots and rovers — and humans."