Something’s Blinking on the Moon but Nobody Knows What

#space #Moon #Blink #Mystery #TLP

Why Does the Moon Keep Flashing Us?

The moon

The moon has been flashing us, and a new telescope might explain why. (Image credit: Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg)

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There’s something flashing us on the moon, and we don’t know what it is. But that might be about to change.

We have known about the mysterious flashes since at least the late 1960s, when the astronomers Barbara Middlehurst and Patrick Moore reviewed the scientific literature and found nearly 400 reports of strange events on the moon. Small regions of the lunar surface would get suddenly brighter or darker, without obvious explanation. The scientists’ survey of the flashes and dimming, which they called “lunar transient phenomena,” was published in the journal Science on Jan. 27, 1967. (Later, astronomers flipped the words around, terming the events “transient lunar phenomena.”)

“The emitted light is usually described as reddish or pinkish, sometimes with a ‘sparkling’ or ‘flowing’ appearance,” wrote the astronomer A. A. Mills in the March 1970 journal Nature.. “The coloration may extend for a distance of 10 miles [16 kilometers] or more on the lunar surface, with brighter spots 2 to 3 miles [3 to 5 km] across, and is commonly associated with veiling of the surface features. The average duration of an event is some 20 minutes, but it may persist intermittently for a few hours.”

Amateur astronomers can sometimes spot the flashes with the help of a decent telescope, though the flashes are unpredictable and finding one can involve hours or days of waiting.

Mills noted, bafflingly, that the events leave no obvious marks on the lunar surface after they pass.

Scientists have returned to the subject periodically in the five decades since, but without turning up conclusive explanations. These events are now known to happen a few times a week. This year, a new team of astronomers has returned to the question with an observaotry specially designed for the task.

The new instrument observes the moon constantly using two cameras located 60 miles (100 km) north of Seville in Spain. When both cameras spot a flash, according to a statement from the telescope’s designers, they record detailed photos and videos of the events, and send an email to Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, which runs the telescopes.

The telescope sits in one of these chambers at an observatory in Spain. (Image credit: Hakan Kayal)

The observatory is still under development, according to the statement, with ongoing improvements to its software since it went online in April. Still, researchers have their suspicions as to what it will discover.

“Seismic activities were also observed on the moon. When the surface moves, gases that reflect sunlight could escape from the interior of the moon,” Hakan Kayal, a researcher at JMU and head of the telescope project, said in the statement. “This would explain the luminous phenomena, some of which last for hours.” Kayal said that, given current plans to establish a base on the moon, it’s important to know just what’s going on up there, so folks living at the base can be prepared for their environment.

But even if that base never happens, it would be nice to know why the moon keeps flashing us.

The moon doesn’t lose a lot of staring contests.

But every now and then, Earthlings who train telescopes on the natural satellite get a a real eye-opener: the moon blinks back at them.

A light, often red or pink, may suddenly flash from the darkness. It lasts a mere second. Other times, the seemingly random twinklings go on for hours.

Is it Morse code? Is someone stranded up there? What are you trying to tell us, Man on the Moon?

Scientists have a name for the effect — transient lunar phenomenon, or simply,TLP. But they don’t know much else. Despite flashing moon lights being recorded for decades, scientists remain as baffled as ever about their origin.

A map showing TLP activity on the moon.
A map showing reported sites of TLP, with red dots signifying reddish clouds and all other events represented by yellow dots. Wikipedia

Is there a method to those pulses of light, often emanating from several points of the moon at once? Theories range from meteorites pelting the moon to gasses being vented from deep beneath the surface.

But astronomer Hakan Kayal may have solved this riddle once and for all by literally connecting the dots.

Moon Telescope

Kayal, a professor at Germany’s University of Würzburg, built a moon telescope, deploying it in Spain earlier this year. From its rural base north of Seville, the telescope is mostly free from meddling light pollution, allowing its unflinching eye to remain fixed on the moon.

Make that two eyes. The telescope incorporates dual cameras, each remotely operated from the university campus in Bavaria. When those cameras detect a burst of light, they automatically start recording images, while sending an email to the German research team: The moon is doing that thing again.

But the real sleuthing will be done by software. Kayal’s team is still honing an AI system that will be able to zero in on flashes of light that originate strictly from the moon.

That’s no small task considering the dizzying number of distractions in the night sky — including counterfeit constellations like Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network.

Scientist Hakan Kayal poses with his lunar telescope.
Hakan Kayal pictured here with the the fully automatic lunar telescope he built. Tobias Greiner/University of Würzburg

But once the lunar telescope’s AI is trained to tune out distractions — it’s expected to be ready in about a year — Kayal says it will be fully tuned into TLP, recording the moon’s every twinkling outburst.

Software Improvements Needed

“One main task for us is to further develop our software for the detection of the events with as low false alarm rates as possible,” Kayal tells Popular Science. “We already have a basic version which works but there are improvements necessary. As the project is not third party-funded yet and only funded by the resources of the university itself, there is not very much manpower for the software. But we have students who can help to improve the software within their study.”

Once those dots are connected, scientists may, for the first time, be able to analyze patterns and come up with a credible theory for that baffling lunar light show.

For now, Kayal has one of his own:

“Seismic activities were also observed on the moon,” he suggests in a press release. “When the surface moves, gases that reflect sunlight could escape from the interior of the moon. This would explain the luminous phenomena, some of which last for hours.”