Eclipse watch for lunar fireworks

Space scientists will watch for explosions on the Moon during tomorrow’s total eclipse. Nasa experts believe meteors flying in from the direction of the sun could smash into the lunar surface with the force of hundreds of pounds of TNT.

Artist's impression of an impactFist-sized rocks will produce bursts of light bright enough to be seen through amateur telescopes back on Earth and blast out craters several yards wide.

The Full Moon will turn a deep coppery red during the lunar eclipse as it completely enters the Earth’s shadow. Nasa astronomer Bill Cooke says the eclipse offers the chance to watch for so-called Helion meteors flying in from the sun.

They are believed to have been left by ancient comets called sungrazers that left trails of debris as they flew close to our home star.

In December, Cooke, of Marshall Space Flight Center’s Meteoroid Environment Office, recorded a string of explosions on the dark side of the Moon as it was bombarded by a meteor shower called the Geminids.

He said: “The eclipse is a great time to look. Meteoroids that hit Earth disintegrate in the atmosphere, producing a harmless streak of light. But the Moon has no atmosphere, so lunar meteors plunge into the ground.”

So far, Cooke’s team has recorded 62 meteor impacts on the Moon since becoming aware that the phenomenon was actually visible in late 2005. They are not looking for fun. Nasa says it needs to estimate the hazard that meteors pose to future astronauts living in lunar colonies.

This week’s eclipse is visible from the USA, Australia and the Pacific but not from Europe as the Moon will be below the horizon. Picture: A Nasa artist’s impression of a meteoroid striking the Moon.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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