Transient lunar phenomenon

Transient lunar phenomenon

A transient lunar phenomenon (TLP) or "Lunar Transient Phenomena" (LTP), refers to short-lived lights, colors, or changes in appearance of the lunar surface.

Claims of short-lived phenomena go back at least 1,000 years, with some having been observed independently by multiple witnesses or reputable scientists. Nevertheless, the majority of transient lunar phenomena reports are irreproducible and do not possess adequate control experiments that could be used to distinguish among alternative hypotheses. Few reports concerning these phenomena are ever published in peer reviewed scientific journals, and rightfully or wrongfully, the lunar scientific community rarely discusses these observations.

Most lunar scientists will acknowledge that transient events such as outgassing and impact cratering do occur over geologic time: the controversy lies in the frequency of such events.

Description of events

Reports of transient lunar phenomena range from foggy patches to permanent changes of the lunar landscape. Cameroncite web | url= | last = W. Cameron | title=Analyses of Lunar Transient Phenomena (LTP) Observations from 557–1994 A.D.] classifies these as (1) gaseous, involving mists and other forms of obscuration, (2) reddish colorations, (3) green, blue or violet colorations, (4) brightenings, and (5) darkenings. Two extensive catalogs of transient lunar phenomena exist, [cite journal | title = [ Chronological Catalog of Reported Lunar Events] | journal = NASA TR | volume = R-277 |date=1968 | last = Barbara Middlehurst, Jaylee Burley, Patrick Moore, and Barbara Welther] with the most recent tallying 2254 events going back to the 6th century. Of the most reliable of these events, at least one-third come from the vicinity of the Aristarchus plateau.

A few of the more famous historical events of transient phenomena include the following:

* On June 18 1178, five or more monks from Canterbury reported an upheaval on the Moon shortly after sunset. "There was a bright new moon, and as usual in that phase its horns were tilted toward the east; and suddenly the upper horn split in two. From the midpoint of this division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals, and sparks. Meanwhile the body of the moon which was below writhed, as it were, in anxiety, and, to put it in the words of those who reported it to me and saw it with their own eyes, the moon throbbed like a wounded snake. Afterwards it resumed its proper state. This phenomenon was repeated a dozen times or more, the flame assuming various twisting shapes at random and then returning to normal. Then after these transformations the moon from horn to horn, that is along its whole length, took on a blackish appearance." [cite journal | last = Jack B. Hartung | title= [ Was the Formation of a 20-km Diameter Impact Crater on the Moon Observed on June 18 1178?] |date=1976 | journal = Meteoritics | volume = 11 |pages = 187–194] [cite web | url = | title = The Giordano Bruno Crater|publisher = BBC] In 1976 Jack Hartung proposed that this described the formation of the Giordano Bruno crater.

*During the night of April 19 1787, the famous British astronomer, Sir William Herschel, noticed three red glowing spots on the dark part of the Moon. [ Herschel, W. (1956, May). Herschel’s ‘Lunar volcanos.’ "Sky and Telescope", pp. 302-304. (Reprint of "An Account of Three Volcanos in the Moon", William Herschel’s report to the Royal Society on April 26 1787, reprinted from his Collected Works (1912))] He informed King George III and other astronomers of his observations. Sir William attributed the phenomena to erupting volcanoes and perceived the luminosity of the brightest of the three as greater than the brightness of a comet that had been discovered on April tenth. His observations were made while an aurora borealis (northern lights) rippled above Padua, Italy. [Kopal, Z. (1966, December). Lunar flares. "Astronomical Society of the Pacific Leaflets", 9, 401-408] Aurora activity that far south from the Arctic Circle was very rare. Padua’s display and Herschel’s observations had happened a few days before the sunspot number had peaked in May 1787.

*In 1866, the experienced lunar observer and mapmaker J. F. Julius Schmidt made the claim that Linné crater had changed its appearance. Based on drawings made earlier by J. H. Schröter, as well as personal observations and drawings made between 1841 to 1843, he stated that the crater "at the time of oblique illumination "cannot at all be seen" [cite journal | last = J. F. Julius Schmidt | title = [ The Lunar Crater Linne] | journal = Astronomical register | volume = 5 | pages = 109–110|date=1867] (his emphasis), whereas at high illumination it was visible as a bright spot. Based on repeat observations, he further stated that "Linné can never be seen under any illumination as a crater of the normal type" and that "a local change has taken place." Today, Linné is visible as a normal young impact crater with a diameter of about 2.4 km.

*On November 2 1958, the Russian astronomer Nikolai A. Kozyrev observed an apparent half hour "eruption" that took place on the central peak of Alphonsus crater using a 48-inch reflector telescope equipped with a spectrometer. During this time, the obtained spectra showed evidence for bright gaseous emission bands due to the molecules C2 and C3. [cite journal | title = [ The Kozyrev Observations of Alphonsus] | last = Dinsmore Alter |journal = Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific | volume= 71 |date=1959 | pages =46–47] While exposing his second spectrogram, he noticed "a marked increase in the brightness of the central region and an unusual white color." Then, "all of a sudden the brightness started to decrease" and the resulting spectrum was normal.

*On October 29 1963, two Aeronautical Chart and Information Center cartographers, James A. Greenacre and Edward Barr, [ Greenacre, J. A. (1963, December). A recent observation of lunar color phenomena. "Sky & Telescope", 26(6), 316-317] at the Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona, manually recorded very bright red, orange, and pink color phenomena on the southwest side of Cobra Head; a hill southeast of the lunar valley Vallis Schröteri; and the southwest interior rim of the Aristarchus crater. [ Zahner, D. D. (1963-64, December-January). Air force reports lunar changes. "Review of Popular Astronomy", 57(525), 29, 36.] This event sparked a major change in attitude towards TLP reports. According to Willy Ley: [ Ley, W. (1965). "Ranger to the moon" (p. 71). New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc.] “The first reaction in professional circles was, naturally, surprise, and hard on the heels of the surprise there followed an apologetic attitude, the apologies being directed at a long-dead great astronomer, Sir William Herschel.” A notation by Winifred Sawtell Cameron states (1978, Event Serial No.778): [Cameron, W. S. (1978, July). Lunar transient phenomena catalog (NSSDC/WDC-A-R&S 78-03). Greenbelt, MD: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] “This and their November observations started the modern interest and observing the Moon.” The credibility of their findings stemmed from Greenacre’s exemplary reputation as an impeccable cartographer. It is interesting to note that this monumental change in attitude had been caused by the reputations of map makers and not by the acquisition of photographic evidence.

*On the night of November 1-2, 1963, a few days after Greenacre’s event, at the Observatoire du Pic-du-Midi in the French Pyrenees, Zdenek Kopal [Meaburn, J. (1994, June). Z. Kopal. "Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society", 35, 229-230] and Thomas Rackham [Moore, P. (2001). Thomas Rackham, 1919-2001. "Journal of the British Astronomical Association", 111(5), 291.] made the first photographs of a "wide area lunar luminescence." Kopal, Z. & Rackham, T. W. (1963). Excitation of lunar luminescence by solar activity. "Icarus", 2, 481-500] His article in "Scientific American" transformed it into one of the most widely publicized TLP events. [ Kopal, Z. (1965, May). The luminescence of the moon. "Scientific American", 212(5), 28] Kopal, like others, had argued that Solar Energetic Particles could be the cause of such a phenomenon. [ Kopal, Z. & Rackham, T. W. (1964, March). Lunar luminescence and solar flares. "Sky & Telescope", 27(3), 140-141]

*In 1992, Audouin Dollfus of the Observatoire de Paris reported anomalous features on the floor of Langrenus crater using a one-meter telescope. While observations on the night of Dec. 29, 1992 were normal, unusually high albedo and polarization features were recorded the following night that did not change in appearance over the 6 minutes of data collection. [cite journal | last = Audouin Dollfus | title = Langrenus: Transient Illuminations on the Moon | journal = Icarus | volume = 146|pages = 430–443 |date=2000 | doi = 10.1006/icar.2000.6395] Observations three days later showed a similar, but smaller, anomaly in the same vicinity. While the viewing conditions for this region were close to specular, it was argued that the amplitude of the observations were not consistent with a specular reflection of sunlight. The favored hypothesis was that this was the consequence of light scattering from clouds of airborne particles resulting from a release of gas. The fractured floor of this crater was cited as a possible source of the gas.


Explanations for the transient lunar phenomena fall in four classes: outgassing, impact events, electrostatic phenomena, and unfavorable observation conditions.


Some TLPs may be caused by gas escaping from underground cavities. A number of these gaseous events are purported to display a distinctive reddish hue, while others have appeared as white clouds or an indistinct haze. The majority of TLPs appear to be associated with floor-fractured craters, the edges of lunar maria, or in other locations linked by geologists with volcanic activity. However, it should be noted that these are some of the most common targets when viewing the Moon, and this correlation could be an observational bias.

In support of the outgassing hypothesis, data from the Lunar Prospector alpha particle spectrometer indicate the recent outgassing of radon to the surface. [cite journal|last = S. Lawson, W. Feldman, D. Lawrence, K. Moore, R. Elphic, and R. Belian | title=Recent outgassing from the lunar surface: the Lunar Prospector alpha particle spectrometer | journal=J. Geophys. Res. | volume = 110 | pages=doi=10.1029/2005JE002433|date=2005 | doi=10.1029/2005JE002433|date=2005 | doi_brokendate=2008-06-28] In particular, results show that radon gas was emamating from the vicinity of the craters Aristarchus and Kepler during the time of this two year mission. These observations could be explained by the slow and visually imperceptible diffusion of gas to the surface, or by discrete explosive events. In support of explosive outgassing, it has been suggested that a roughly 3 km diameter region of the lunar surface was "recently" modified by a gas release event. [cite web |url = |last = G. Jeffrey Taylor | title = Recent Gas Escape from the Moon | publisher = Planetary Science Research Discoveries | date=2006] [cite journal | last = P. H. Schultz, M. I. Staid, and C. M. Pieters |date=2006 | title= Lunar activity from recent gas release | journal= Nature |volume = 444 |pages = 184–186 | doi= 10.1038/nature05303] However, the age of this feature is believed to be about 1 million years old, suggesting that such large phenomena occur only infrequently.

Impact events

Impact events are continually occurring on the lunar surface. The most common events are those associated with micrometeorites, as might be encountered during meteor showers. Impact flashes from such events have been detected from multiple and simultaneous Earth based observations. [cite web | url= | title = Explosions on the Moon
date=Nov. 30, 2001 |last = Tony Phillips
] [cite journal | last =Brian Cudnik, David W. Palmer, David M. Palmer, Anthony Cook, Roger Venable, and Peter Gural | title = [;jsessionid=3hqgti6lb1k1n.henrietta The Observation and Characterization of Lunar Meteoroid Impact Phenomena] | journal = Earth, Moon and Planets | volume = 93 | pages = 97–106 |date=2003 | doi = 10.1023/B:MOON.0000034498.32831.3c] cite web | url = | title = Lunar impact monitoring |publisher = NASA] Furthermore, impact clouds were detected following the crash of ESA's SMART-1 spacecraft. [cite web | url = | title = SMART-1 impact flash and dust cloud seen by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope|date=2006] Impact events leave a visible scar on the surface, and these could be detected by analyzing before and after photos of sufficiently high resolution. No impact craters having formed between the Apollo-era, Clementine (global resolution 100 metre, selected areas 7-20 metre) and SMART-1 (resolution 50 metre) missions have been identified.

Electrostatic phenomena

It has been suggested that effects related to either electrostatic charging or discharging might be able to account for some of the transient lunar phenomena. One possibility is that electrodynamic effects related to the fracturing of near surface materials could charge any gasses that might be present, such as implanted solar wind or radiogenic daughter products. [cite journal | last = Richard Zito | title = A new mechanism for lunar transient phenomena | journal = Icarus | volume = 82 | pages = 419–422 |date=1989 | doi = 10.1016/0019-1035(89)90048-1] If this were to occur at the surface, the subsequent discharge from this gas might be able to give rise to phenomenon visible from Earth. Alternatively, it has been proposed that the triboelectric charging of particles within a gas borne dust cloud could give rise to electrostatic discharges visible from Earth. [cite journal| last = David Hughes | title = Transient lunar phenomena | journal = Nature | volume = 285 | pages = 438 |date=1980 | doi = 10.1038/285438a0] Finally, electrostatic levitation of dust near the terminator could potentially give rise to some form of phenomenon visible from Earth. [cite web | url = | title = New Research into Mysterious Moon Storms | last = Trudy Bell and Tony Phillips |date=Dec. 7 2005]

Unfavorable observation conditions

It is possible that many transient phenomena might not be associated with the Moon itself, but could be a result of unfavorable observing conditions or phenomenon associated with the Earth. For instance, some reported transient phenomena are for objects near the resolution of the employed telescopes. The Earth's atmosphere can give rise to significant temporal distortions that could be confused with actual lunar phenomena (see astronomical seeing). Other non-lunar explanations include the viewing of Earth orbiting satellites and meteors, or observational error.

Are TLPs real?

The most significant problem that faces reports of transient lunar phenomena is that the vast majority of these were made by either a single observer, or at a single location on Earth (or both). The multitude of reports for transient phenomena occurring at the same "place" on the Moon could be used as evidence supporting their existence. However, in the absence of eyewitness reports from multiple observers at multiple locations on Earth for the "same" event, these must be regarded with caution. As discussed above, an equally plausible hypothesis for the majority of these events is that they are caused by the terrestrial atmosphere. If an event were to be observed at two different places on Earth at the same time, this could be used as evidence against an atmospheric origin.

One attempt to overcome the above problems with transient phenomena reports was made during the Clementine mission by a network of amateur astronomers. Several events were reported, of which four of these were photographed both beforehand and afterwards by the spacecraft. However, careful analysis of these images shows no discernible differences at these sites. [cite journal | last = B. Buratti, W. McConnochie, S. Calkins, and J. Hillier | journal = Icarus | title=Lunar transient phenomena: What do the Clementine images reveal? | volume=146 | pages=98–117 |date=2000 | doi=10.1006/icar.2000.6373] This does not necessarily imply that these reports were a result of observational error, as it is possible that outgassing events on the lunar surface might not leave a visible marker, but neither is it encouraging for the hypothesis that these were authentic lunar phenomena.

Observations are currently being coordinated by the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers and the British Astronomical Association to re-observe sites where transient lunar phenomena were reported in the past. By documenting the appearance of these features under the same illumination and libration conditions, it is possible to judge whether some reports were simply due to a misinterpretation of what the observer regarded asan abnormality. Furthermore, with digital images it is possible to simulate atmospheric spectral dispersion, astronomical seeing blur and light scatteringby our atmosphere to determine if these phenomena could explain some of the original TLP reports.

ee also

*Geology of the Moon
*Observing the Moon


Cited references

General references
*cite book | title = Epic Moon: A History of Lunar Exploration in the Age of the Telescope | last = William Sheehan and Thomas Dobbins |date=2001 | publisher = Willmann-Bell | pages = 363 pp
* Patrick Moore, "On the Moon", Cassel & Co., 2001, ISBN 0-304-35469-4.

External links

* [ Lunar Transient Phenomena] NASA feature story
* [ Lunar transient phenomena] Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers
* Science@NASA - [ Lunar Transient Phenomena]
* NASA - [ Lunar Impact Monitoring Program]
* [ Lunar Transient Phenomenon Research Program]
*cite news
first=David | last=Poratta
title=Columbia Astronomer Offers New Theory Into 400-year-old Lunar Mystery
publisher=Columbia University |date=June 27, 2007

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