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Meteorite punches the Moon producing brightest-ever impact flash

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Feb 25, 2014, 8:00 UTC

Sen—A car-sized space rock smashed into the "near" side of the Moon in last September, producing a flash so bright that anyone on Earth looking at the Moon with their bare eyes would have been able to see it.

Travelling at 61,000 kilometres (38,000 miles) an hour, the meteorite carved out a new crater in Mare Nubium that is about 40 metres (131 feet) wide. The energy created by the impact was equivalent to what would be created with 15 tonnes of TNT.

"The flash was the result of a rock crashing into the lunar surface and was briefly almost as bright as the familiar Pole Star, meaning that anyone on Earth who was lucky enough to be looking at the moon at that moment would have been able to see it," stated a press release from the Royal Astronomical Society.

"In the video recording ... an afterglow remained visible for a further eight seconds. The September event is the longest and brightest confirmed impact flash ever observed on the moon."

The result astounded José Maria Madiedo, a researcher at the University of Huelva in Spain who led a scientific paper recently authored on the event. He witnessed the event while operating two telescopes in the south of Spain. "At that moment, I realised that I had seen a very rare and extraordinary event," he said in a statement.

The event, which took place Sept. 11 at 20:07 GMT, is yet another demonstration of the power of meteorite impacts in our Solar System. The conversation about these space rocks became more frequent after the Chelyabinsk meteor impact last year, which saw a 20-meter rock break up over a Russian city and cause hundreds of injuries. 

Millions of rocks float around our Solar System, leftovers from the beginning of our neighbourhood's history. Many astronomers believe there was a period of intense bombardment in our Solar System's childhood that carved out the big scars we see on the Moon, and also pummeled the young Earth. While the pace of impacts has slowed down since then, a rock's impact is no less dangerous. If the rock or comet is big enough when it slams into Earth's atmosphere, it can wipe out an urban area or even more, as the impact that killed off the dinosaurs roughly 66 million years ago illustrates.

The rock that crashed into the Moon, however, is small enough to burn up in Earth's atmosphere, the researchers determined. The scientists figured out, however, that one-metre-sized objects could hit our planet up to 10 times more than previously believed. 

"Our telescopes will continue observing the moon as our meteor cameras monitor the Earth's atmosphere. In this way we expect to identify clusters of rocks that could give rise to common impact events on both planetary bodies. We also want to find out where the impacting bodies come from," Madiedo stated.

The research was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.