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Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 01:41 GMT
Leonid strikes the Moon
The Leonids put on a spectacular show

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Astronomers think they have witnessed a meteor striking the Moon. Brian Cudnik from Houston, Texas, captured the event, which may be the first such confirmed observation.

He was looking at the Moon during last week's Leonid meteor storm in the hope that he might see something interesting. It had been suggested that skywatchers might see a Leonid strike the lunar surface about three hours after the storm's peak on Earth.

Cudnik saw a brief flash near the centre of the Moon's dark side at about 0446 GMT.

Observing through a telescope, he estimated that the flash, lasting only a fraction of a second, was at least as bright as some nearby stars. It was also seen by astronomer David Dunham observing near Washington DC, who made a video recording of the event.

Astronomers are now appealing for anyone else who may have seen the event to come forward. According to Dunham, analysis of the images will permit a reasonably good determination of the brightness and location of the impact flash.

Impact site

The next step would be to use high-power telescopes to scrutinise the impact site to see if there have been any changes. This is unlikely as the impact must have been by a small meteor, probably less than a kilogram in mass. But astronomers will want to look, nonetheless.

It would certainly help to establish if this is the first, confirmed lunar impact observation. A probable lunar meteor impact was photographed on 15 November, 1953, but was not confirmed by other observations.

There is also a very old historical account that could also be explained by a meteor hitting the Moon. This was recorded by Gervase of Canterbury who, in 1178, along with five other monks, saw a very bright flash on the Moon:

"There was a bright New Moon, and as usual in that phase its horns were tilted towards the east. Suddenly, the upper horn split in two. From the midpoint of the division, a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out fire, hot coals and sparks."

Some astronomers believe that the crater Bruno, one of the youngest on the lunar surface, may have been formed in this event.

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See also:
18 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
World marvels at meteors
18 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
In the Leonids' lair

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