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Wood Explains Lunar Phenomena on BBC Radio

Thu Nov 6 2008

Is Earth's Moon a living body, emitting puffs of gas that when viewed from Earth appear as short-lived flashes of light or color lasting a few minutes?

Most planetary geologists, such as Chuck Wood, director of the Center for Educational Technologies, say the flashes are probably nothing more than light tricks.

Wood was one of the scientists interviewed by BBC Radio for a half-hour program on transient lunar phenomena (TLP), occasional short-lived flashes that some claim offer evidence that the Moon is not dead but instead is still releasing bursts of gas-propelled dust clouds from the lunar surface. The phenomena have been reported for more than 200 years and even noted by crew members of Apollo 11 as they orbited the Moon in 1969.

The BBC program is available online through Nov. 10.

Wood, a renowned lunar scientist who spent a number of years as chief of NASA's Space Shuttle Earth Observations Office, told the BBC that there is no hard evidence to prove that TLP are anything more than tricks played on the human eye as seen through certain telescopes and with the naked eye.

"One of the principal causes of seeing redness on the Moon is using a small telescope that uses a lens—a refracting telescope," Wood said in the interview. "They cause the light to be split up so that if you have a bright source, like a bright edge of the Moon, you can see red or purple glow there because the simple lens doesn't bring the light of different colors all to focus at one point."

Wood also explained the observations of possible TLP by the Apollo 11 crew when asked to survey a large crater called Aristarchus while orbiting the Moon. That crater had often been the source of TLP reports.

The Apollo 11 crew told mission control during their flyby that the crater did appear to have a great deal of brightness on one wall, though no color.

Wood told the BBC that Aristarchus is often seen as a bright, highly reflective crater and that the brightness the astronauts reported was not different from how it looks every month.

"What people are seeing as the transient phenomena is, in fact, an observation of the surface being illuminated by light just for a very short time, maybe for a few minutes, once every month," Wood said. He added that a group in Italy tracks the so-called TLP to demonstrate that they occur on a regular basis at certain locations. He said the group has proved that TLP can be predicted.

Wood said that the places where the TLP are reported correspond with what he calls some of the most spectacular things to see on the Moon.

"I bet if you had a survey of what objects you look at when you look at the Moon, that would be pretty much the same list of objects that people see transient phenomena at. I would feel much better about transient phenomena if they had been recorded at boring places that have nothing of interest to look at."

The BBC program detailed the efforts of a Columbia University researcher to capture TLP. He has set up robotic telescopes that each night photograph the Moon. He then plans to study the data captured from the telescopes.

Another researcher claims that the TLP might indicate gas being released from magma as the deep core of the Moon continues to cool. Another theory is that the Moon is being flexed by the tides from the Earth, which creates seismic activity as the Moon "groans," eventually blowing off gas.

Wood has authored three books dealing with the Moon, volcanoes, and craters, respectively. He also has written some 250 papers encompassing conference publications, abstracts, and oral presentations at national and international meetings. He also has been a columnist for Sky & Telescope magazine since 1998, authoring more than 100 columns. In addition, he operates a website called Lunar Photo of the Day. For more information you can also visit his personal website, Chuck Wood's Moon: A Compendium of Lunar Science and History.