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Sparkles on the moon



Sparkles on the moon

Credit: Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

It happens several times a week. Sometimes they are only short flashes of light that appear on the surface of the moon. Other light phenomena in the Earth's satellite may last longer. And sometimes there are also places that are temporarily darkened.

Science does not know exactly how these phenomena occur on the moon. But he has tried to explain them: the impact of a meteor, for example, should cause a brief glow. Such flashes could also occur when electrically charged solar wind particles react with moon dust.

"Seismic activities were also observed on the moon, and when the surface moves, the gases that reflect sunlight could escape from the moon's interior, which would explain the light phenomena, some of which last for hours," says Hakan Kayal, professor Of space. Technology at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany.

Lunar telescope installed in Spain

Kayal is more interested in these appearances. "The so-called transient lunar phenomena have been known since the 1950s, but they have not been sufficiently observed." This is currently changing, and the JMU teacher wants to make his contribution.

As a first step, Kayal's team built a lunar telescope and put it into operation in April 2019. It is located in a private observatory in Spain, about 100 kilometers north of Seville in a rural area. Why Spain? "There are simply better weather conditions to observe the moon than in Germany," says Kayal.

The telescope is remotely controlled from the JMU campus. It consists of two cameras that monitor the moon night after night. Only if both cameras register a light phenomenon at the same time, the telescope activates other actions. Then it stores the photos and video sequences of the event and sends an email to the Kayal team.

Sparkles on the moon

The observatory in Spain. The Würzburg lunar telescope is located in one of the containers. Credit: Hakan Kayal

The system is not yet finished: the software, which automatically and reliably detects flashes and other light phenomena, is being further refined. Kayal plans to use artificial intelligence methods, among other things: neural networks ensure that the system gradually learns to distinguish a moon flash from technical failures or objects such as birds and planes pbading in front of the camera. It is estimated that another year of work will be required before this can be done.

For Kayal, reducing the false alarm rate as much as possible is only the first milestone in this project. The system, which is being developed on Spanish soil, will be used later in a satellite mission. The cameras could then work in orbit around the Earth or the moon. The professor hopes that this will lead to much better results: "Then we will get rid of the disturbances caused by the atmosphere".

What happens once the telescope has documented a luminous phenomenon? Kayal's team would then compare the result with the European Space Agency ESA, which also watches the moon. "If the same thing was seen there, the event can be considered confirmed." If necessary, an additional joint investigation could be initiated.

A new race to the moon.

The interest in lunar luminous phenomena is currently high. This is also due to a new "race to the moon" that is underway: China launched a comprehensive lunar program and, in early January 2019, launched a probe on the other side of the moon. India is planning a similar mission. In reaction to these initiatives, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, spoke in May of a return of the United States to the Moon and announced that he wanted NASA to return "to its previous size."

Behind all these activities there are reasons for prestige and an effort for technological "supremacy" in space. China and other players such as Space X, however, are also considering the moon as a habitat for humans in the long term. In addition, there are raw materials on the moon, for example, rare metals for smart phones and other devices.

"Anyone who wants to build a lunar base at some point, of course, must be familiar with local conditions," says Professor Kayal. What if such plans ever become concrete? By then, at the latest, it should be clear what the mysterious flashes and light phenomena are about.


Image: Two lunar sparkles illuminate the darkened moon


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Sparkles on the moon (2019, May 31)
recovered on May 31, 2019
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