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Old 06-19-2006
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A Meteoroid Hits the Moon

June 13, 2006: There's a new crater on the Moon. It's about 14 meters wide, 3 meters deep and precisely one month, eleven days old.

NASA astronomers watched it form: "On May 2, 2006, a meteoroid hit the Moon's Sea of Clouds (Mare Nubium) with 17 billion joules of kinetic energy—that's about the same as 4 tons of TNT," says Bill Cooke, the head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, AL. "The impact created a bright fireball which we video-recorded using a 10-inch telescope."

Lunar impacts have been seen before--"stuff hits the Moon all the time," notes Cooke--but this is the best-ever recording of an explosion in progress:



Above: A meteoroid hits the Moon, May 2, 2006; video-recorded by MSFC engineers Heather McNamara and Danielle Moser. [Larger video] [labels]

The video plays in 7x slow motion; otherwise the explosion would be nearly invisible to the human eye. "The duration of the fireball was only four-tenths of a second," says Cooke. "A student member of our team, Nick Hollon of Villanova University, spotted the flash."

Taking into account the duration of the flash and its brightness (7th magnitude), Cooke was able to estimate the energy of impact, the dimensions of the crater, and the size and speed of the meteoroid. "It was a space rock about 10 inches (25 cm) wide traveling 85,000 mph (38 km/s)," he says.

If a rock like that hit Earth, it would never reach the ground. "Earth's atmosphere protects us," Cooke explains. "A 10-inch meteoroid would disintegrate in mid-air, making a spectacular fireball in the sky but no crater." The Moon is different. Having no atmosphere, it is totally exposed to meteoroids. Even small ones can cause spectacular explosions, spraying debris far and wide.

According to the Vision for Space Exploration, NASA is sending astronauts back to the Moon. Are these meteoroids going to cause a problem?

"That's what we're trying to find out," says Cooke. "No one knows exactly how many meteoroids hit the Moon every day. By monitoring the flashes, we can learn how often and how hard the Moon gets hit."

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