Ever since the Apollo missions explored the lunar surface, scientists have known that the Moon’s craters are the result of a long history of meteor and asteroid impacts. But it has only been in the past few decades that we have come to understand how regular these are. In fact, every few hours, an impact on the lunar surface is indicated by a bright flash. These impact flashes are designed as a “transient lunar phenomena” because they are fleeting.
Basically, this means that the flashes (while common) last for only a fraction of a second, making them very difficult to detect. For this reason, the European Space Agency (ESA) created the NEO Lunar Impacts and Optical TrAnsients (NELIOTA) project in 2015 to monitor the moon for signs of impact flashes. By studying them, the project hopes to learn more about the size and distribution of near-Earth objects to determine if they pose a risk to Earth.
In February of 2015, the National Observatory of Athens and the European Space Agency launched theNear-Earth object Lunar Impacts and Optical TrAnsients (NELIOTA) project. Using the 1.2 meter telescope at the Kryoneri Observatory, the purpose of this project is to the determine the frequency and distribution of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) by monitoring how often they impact the Moon.
Last week, on May 24th, 2017, the ESA announced that the project had begun to detect impacts, which were made possible thanks to the flashes of light detected on the lunar surface. Whereas other observatories that monitor the Moon’s surface are able to detect these impacts, NELIOTA is unique in that it is capable of not only spotting fainter flashes, but also measuring the temperatures of they create.
Projects like NELIOTA are important because the Earth and the Moon are constantly being bombarded by natural space debris – which ranges in size from dust and pebbles to larger objects. While larger objects are rare, they can cause considerable damage, like the 20-meter object that disintegrated above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February of 2013, causing extensive injuries and destruction of property.
What’s more, whereas particulate matter rains down on Earth and the Moon quite regularly, the frequency of pebble-sized or meter-sized objects is not well known. These objects remain too small to be detected by telescopes directly, and cameras are rarely able to picture them before they break up in Earth’s atmosphere. Hence, scientists have been looking for other ways to determine just how frequent these potentially-threatening objects are.
One way is to observe the areas of the lunar surface that are not illuminated by the Sun, where the impact of a small object at high speed will cause a bright flash. These flashes are created by the object burning up on impact, and are bright enough to be seen from Earth. Assuming the objects have a density and velocity common to NEOs, the brightness of the impact can be used to determine the size and mass of the object.
“These observations are very relevant for our Space Situational Awareness program. In particular, in the size range we can observe here, the number of objects is not very well known. Performing these observations over a longer period of time will help us to better understand this number.“
After being taken offline in 2016 for the sake of making upgrades, the NELIOTA project officially began conducting operations on March 8th, 2017. Using this refurbished telescope, which is operated by the National Observatory of Athens, NELIOTA is capable of detecting flashes that are much fainter than any current, small-aperture, lunar monitoring telescopes.
The telescope does this by observing the Moon’s night hemisphere whenever it is above the horizon and between phases. At these times – i.e. between a New Moon and the First Quarter, or between the Last Quarter and a New Moon – the surface is mostly dark and flashes are most visible. Incoming light is then split into two colors and the data is recorded by two advanced digital cameras that operate in different color ranges.
This data is then analyzed by automated software, which extrapolates temperatures based on the color data obtained by the cameras. As Alceste Bonanos – the Principal Investigator for NELIOTA – explained, all this sets the 1.2 meter telescope apart:
“Its large telescope aperture enables NELIOTA to detect fainter flashes than other lunar monitoring surveys and provides precise color information not currently available from other project. Our twin camera system allows us to confirm lunar impact events with a single telescope, something that has not been done before. Once data have been collected over the 22-month long operational period, we will be able to better constrain the number of NEOs (near-Earth objects) in the decimetre to metre size range.
The NELIOTA project scientists are currently collaborating with the Science Support Office of ESA to analyze the flashes and measure the temperatures of each flash. From this, they hope to be able to make accurate estimates of the mass and size of each impactor, which they will further corroborate by analyzing the size of the craters these impacts leave behind.
The study of impacts on the Moon will ultimately let scientists know exactly how often larger objects are raining down on Earth. Armed with this information, we will be able to make better predictions on when and how a potentially-threatening object could be entering our atmosphere. As the Chelyabinsk meteor demonstrated, one of the greatest dangers posed by meteorites is a general lack of preparedness. Where people can be forewarned, injury, damage and even deaths can be prevented.
NELIOTA is also contributing to public outreach and education through a number of initiatives. These include public tours of the Kryoneri Observatory – in which the details of the NELIOTA project are shared – as well as presentations to students and the general public about Near-Earth Asteroids. The project team are also training two PhD students in how to operate the Kryoneri telescope and conduct lunar observing, thus creating the next-generation of NEO observers.
This summer (Friday, June 30th), the Observatory will also be hosting a public event to coincide with Asteroid Day 2017. This international event will feature presentations, speeches and educational seminars hosted by astronomical institutions and organizations from all around the world. Save the date!