A Record-Breaking Rock Smashed Into the Moon Last Year
For eight seconds on Sept. 11, 2013, a small spot on the moon flashed bright like the sun, the result of a historic impact.
That day, a meteorite about the size of a car smacked into the lunar surface. The moon is pockmarked by craters left by space rocks, but a report published Tuesday by the Royal Astronomical Society says this one had the largest impact ever recorded.
Jose Maria Madiedo, an astronomer and professor at the University of Huelva in Spain, was manning two telescopes designed to find these impacts when he noticed a glowing white dot in a dark, lava-filled region of the moon called Mare Nubium. When the light lingered for around eight seconds, he knew he had seen something unusual.
“I immediately realized that I had the opportunity to witness an extraordinary event taking place on the moon,” Madiedo told Mashable in an email. “I felt very lucky for that.”
When a meteorite smashes into the moon or any other surface, it vaporizes in a blaze of blinding white light. This is what causes the flash, but most are small and last just a fraction of a second.
But Madiedo and Dr. Jose L. Ortiz from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, who helps Madiedo run the telescopes that comprise the Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System, are sure this meteorite was much bigger. They think it weighed about 1,000 pounds, measured from 2 to 4.5 feet long, flew in at around 37,900 miles per hour and detonated with the force of 15 tons of TNT.
Though the explosion was huge, even a rock of that size would have dissolved in Earth’s atmosphere if its trajectory had been different. That’s not to say meteorites never collide with our planet. Just last year, that happened in Chelyabinsk, Russia, causing around 1,400 injuries.
Madiedo and Ortiz look for moon impacts to study how a similar impact might effect Earth.
“Our telescopes will continue observing the moon as our meteor cameras monitor the Earth’s atmosphere,” Madiedo said in the interview with the Royal Astronomical Society. “In this way we expect to identify clusters of rocks that could give rise to common impact events on both planetary bodies.”