Hakan Kayal next to specialized Moon telescope.
Credit: Tobias Greiner/Universität Würzburg

Flashes of light that occur on the Moon are attracting renewed attention.

Called transient lunar phenomena, or TLPs for short, these bursts of light from the lunar surface have been known since the 1950s. Claims of short-lived lunar phenomena go back at least 1,000 years.

Maintaining a systematic and a long-term lunar look-see is on the astronomical agenda of Hakan Kayal, Professor of Space Technology at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany.

Remote control

Kayal and his team have built a specialized lunar telescope, putting it into operation in April 2019. Situated in a private observatory in Spain, the weather conditions there viewed as ideal for observing the Moon.

The telescope is remote-controlled from the JMU campus. It consists of two cameras that keep an eye on the Moon night after nightfall, on the prowl to spot flashes of light. If both cameras register a luminous phenomenon at the same time, the telescope triggers further actions. It then stores photos and video sequences of the event and sends an e-mail message to Kayal’s team.

This map displays an approximate distribution of transient lunar phenomena. It is based on a monochrome map by Barbara Middlehurst and Patrick Moore that was published in the book, On the Moon in 2001. Red dots indicate TLP that appeared to the observer as a reddish cloud. Yellow dots are all other events.

Puzzling phenomena

Scientists do not know precisely how these phenomena occur on the Moon. Perhaps they occur due to impacts of a meteor, creating a brief glow. Maybe such flashes occur when electrically charged particles of the solar wind react with lunar dust.

“Seismic activities were also observed on the Moon. 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,” says Kayal in a JMU press statement.

AI software

Augmenting the system — and not yet completely finished – is the software, which automatically and reliably detects flashes and other light phenomena.

Kayal and his colleagues plan to use artificial intelligence methods to distinguish a Moon flash from technical faults or from objects such as birds and airplanes passing in front of the camera. It is estimated that another year of work will be required before this can be done.

Reducing the false alarm rate as much as possible is only the first milestone in this project. The system will later be used on a satellite mission. The cameras could then work in orbit around the Earth or the Moon and free of disturbances caused by our planet’s atmosphere.

A new ESA-led project is investigating the ways that 3D printing could be used to create and run a habitat on the Moon. Everything from building materials to solar panels, equipment and tools to clothes, even nutrients and food ingredients can potentially be 3D printed.
Credit: ESA



Moonbase planning

Interest in the lunar luminous phenomena is currently high, stirred up in part by Moon exploration plans of Europe, China, India, the United States and others.

“Anyone who wants to build a lunar base at some point must of course be familiar with the local conditions,” says Kayal. So identifying what triggers the mysterious flashes and luminous phenomena is worthy of new study.

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