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A Leonid on the Moon?

The first recorded impact of a meteorite on the Moon may have been captured on video during the 1999 Leonids meteor storm. Astronomers call for confirming data.

Leonid Lunar impact?November 22, 1999: The 1999 Leonid meteor storm was spectacular over Europe and parts of the Middle East where as many as 70 meteors per minute were seen by sky watchers. Meteor enthusiasts were spellbound by the display.

In North America most observers had a different story to tell. By the time the constellation Leo rose above the horizon in the United States, the storm was over. Only 20 to 40 meteors per hour were seen in most areas.

Right: These four video frames captured by David Dunham, president of the International Occultation Timing Association, may be the first recorded evidence of a meteorite striking the moon. At peak brightness, the flash was about 3rd magnitude. [more information]

Nevertheless, the most exciting Leonid observation may have occurred where the shower was weakest -- right here in the United States. Brian Cudnik, a research technician at Rice University and Prairie View A&M University, was watching the Moon for signs of flashes caused by Leonids striking the lunar surface. At about 4h 46m 20s UT on November 18 he saw a brief flash near the center of the Moon's dark side, close to the edge of the lunar disk. Observing with a 36cm telescope, he estimated that the flash, taking a fraction of a second, was at least as bright as a nearby 4th-magnitude star. Cudnik is an experienced observer of occultations, and he immediately contacted David Dunham, president of the International Occultation Timing Association for possible confirmation.

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Fortunately, Dunham was video taping the dark side of the moon at the same time that Cudnik saw the flash.

"I confirmed the observation in a video recording that I made using a 13cm telescope in Mount Airy, Maryland," says Dunham, who is also the chief of the mission design team for NASA's Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission. "The event occurred at a cusp angle of around 75 - 80N (10 to 15 deg. north of the lunar equator) 1.7' from the Moon's edge. The flash, timed from the videotape at 4h 46m 15s UT, is visible in only two video frames, the first at about 3rd magnitude and the second at about 8th magnitude." The images can be viewed at http://iota.jhuapl.edu/.

"The object was probably a Leonid since the peak of this year's display was at 2h UT as seen from the Earth," continued Dunham. "The trailing Moon would arrive at the same solar longitude about 3h later, near the time of the observed impact. I also recorded 5 lunar occultations of 8th-magnitude stars an hour before the impact. Analysis of those images and others will permit a reasonably good determination of the brightness and location of the impact flash."

Dunham has issued a call for other lunar observers to report data that might confirm his observation. Several groups have already reported in, he says, but so far everyone was looking at the wrong time or at the wrong spot. If you have video or visual observations of the Moon bearing evidence of possible Leonid meteorite impacts, please contact David Dunham at david.dunham@jhuapl.edu.

For more information about Leonids on the Moon, click here
Web Links

Leonids Live! -site of the live webcast of the 1999 Leonids

North American Meteor Network - home page

Related Stories:
Leonids on the Moon -- Nov 3, 1999. Leonid meteorite impacts on the Moon might be visible from Earth and provide a means for long-distance lunar prospecting.

NASA Meteor Balloon Rises Again -- Nov 1, 1999. NASA scientists are planning to launch a weather balloon into the stratosphere on November 18 to capture a recording of the Leonids meteor shower from 100,000 ft.

Leonids in the Crystal Ball -- Oct 27, 1999. Is 1999 the year for a Leonids meteor storm? Experts make their predictions.

Pop! Ping! Perseids! -- Aug 13, 1999. The Science@NASA meteor balloon popped before reaching the stratosphere but many meteor enthusiasts still saw and heard the Perseid shower.

Perseids Live! Balloon Flight Planned -- Aug 6, 1999. A NASA weather balloon will ascend to the stratosphere for a live webcast of the 1999 Perseids.

The Leonid Meteor Outburst of 1997 -- July 16, 1999.Newly released video shows a flurry of Leonids in 1997 that briefly rivaled the great meteor storm of 1966.

Tuning in to April meteor showers -- Apr. 27, 1999. Amateur astronomers capture radio echoes from fiery meteors in April 99.

April's Lyrid meteor shower -- Apr. 21, 1999. The oldest known meteor shower peaks this year on April 22.

A Wild Ride to the Stratosphere in Search of Meteors -- Apr. 14, 1999. The payload from the NASA Meteor Balloon has been recovered.

Meteor Balloon set for Launch -- Apr. 9, 1999. NASA scientists prepare to launch a weather balloon designed to capture micrometeoroids in the stratosphere.

Leonid Sample Return Update -- Apr. 1, 1999. Scientists will describe initial results from a program to catch meteoroids in flight at the NASA/Ames Leonids Workshop April 12-15, 1999.

The Ghost of Fireballs Past -- Dec. 22, 1998. RADAR echoes from Leonid and Geminid meteors.

Bunches & Bunches of Geminids -- Dec. 15, 1998. The Geminids continued to intensify in 1998

The 1998 Leonids: A bust or a blast? -- Nov. 27, 1998. New images of Leonid fireballs and their smoky remnants.

Leonids Sample Return payload recovered! -- Nov. 23, 1998. Scientists are scanning the "comet catcher" for signs of Leonid meteoroids.

Early birds catch the Leonids -- Nov. 19, 1998. The peak of the Leonid meteor shower happened more than 14 hours earlier than experts had predicted.

A high-altitude look at the Leonids -- Nov. 18, 1998. NASA science balloon catches video of 8 fireballs.

The Leonid Sample Return Mission -- Nov. 16, 1998. NASA scientists hope to capture a Leonid meteoroid and return it to Earth.

Great Expectations: the 1998 Leonid meteor shower -- Nov. 10, 1998. The basics of what the Leonids are and what might happen on November 17.


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For more information, please contact:
Dr. John M. Horack , Director of Science Communications
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: M. Frank Rose