Pre-Apollo Exploration of the Moon - Remote Sensing Application - Completely Remote Sensing, GPS, and GPS Tutorial
Pre-Apollo Exploration of the Moon

Lets begin with an image that places the Moon in context with its parent planet Earth. This view, taken from the Galileo spacecraft to be described later, is what an extraterrestrial space traveler might see as he/she/it approaches the Earth-Moon system.

The Earth and Moon together, as seen from the Galileo spacecraft; the Sun is located to the right, hence the half shadow effect.

Without question, the greatest part of early remote sensing investigations of the planets, as expected from its proximity, centered on the Moon. Indeed, its mean distance from Earth of 384,400 km (238,710 miles) meant that even before the 20th Century, dreamers could fancy someday going there for a visit (Best known fantasy: Jules Verne's Journey to the Moon). Earth's sole satellite is much smaller than the parent body: 3475 km (2160 miles) in diameter. (For a quick synopsis of the Moon's general characteristics, read through this review by Bill Arnett: The Moon . Then, also check with the Web Site Rosanna Hamilton's Moon Page, looking particularly at the Table of Lunar Statistics and the section on the origin of the Moon stemming from an early huge impact of an asteroid with the primitive Earth).

Lunar Statistics are important and informative. Reproduced here are most of the "vital" ones:

* Mean Distance of Moon from Earth - 238,712 mi (384,400 km)

* Greatest Distance of Moon from Earth (Apogee) - 252,586 mi (406,740 km)

* Shortest Distance of Moon from Earth (Perigee) - 221,331 mi (356,410 km)

* Circumference - 6,790 mi. (10,930 km.) 0.27 of Earth's circumference

* Diameter - 2,160 mi. (3,476 km.) 0.27 of Earth's diameter

* Mean Radius - 1,079 mi. (1,737.5 km.)

* Equatorial Radius - 1,079 mi. (1,738 km.)

* Polar Radius - 1,077 mi. (1,735 km.)

* Mean Angular Diameter - 31' 07"

* Mass - 8 x 10 (19) tons (7.35 x 10 (22) kg)

* Mass Ratio (Earth Moon) - 81.301

* Volume - 2.4 x 10(9) mi� (2.197 x 1010km�

* Mean Density - 208 lb/ft� (3.34 g/cm�) 0.6 Earth's density

* Gravity at Surface - 5.31 ft/s� (1.62 m/s�) 1/6 Earth's gravity

* Escape Velocity - 1.48 miles/sec (2.38 km/sec)

* Mean Inclination to Lunar Equator - 6� 41'

* Mean Orbital Inclination to Ecliptic - 5� 08' 43"

* Oscillation of Orbital Inclination to Equator - +/- 0� 9' every 173 days

* Inclination of Lunar Equator to Ecliptic - 1� 32' 33"

* Period of Revolution of Perigee - 3,232 days

* Period of Rotation about the lunar axis - 27.3 days

* Orbital Direction - east (counterclockwise from above)

* Mean Orbital Speed - 2,287 mi/h (3,683 km/h) 33 minutes arc/hour

* Daily Sidereal Motion - 13.176358�

* Mean Centripetal Acceleration - 0.0003 g

* Mean Eccentricity of Orbit - 0.0549

* Synodic Month - 29.53059 days (29 days, 12 hr. 44 min, 2.8 sec.)

* Sidereal Month (star to star) - 27 days, 7hr. 43min, 11.5sec.

* Anomalistic Month (Apogee to Apogee) - 27 days, 13hr. 18Min, 33.2sec.

* Rotational Period - 27 days, 7hr, 43min. 11.5sec

* Surface Temperature - day = 273 F (120° C) night = -244F (-153° C)

* Surface Area - 14,657,449 mi sq. (37,958,621 km sq.) 9.4 billion acres

* Visible Surface - 41% during lunar cycle, additional 18% from librations

* Parallax - 0.9507°

* Moon's Angular Diameter - 0.5181°

* Magnitude of Full Moon - -12.5

* Average Albedo - 0.07

* Estimated Age - 4.6 billion years

* Flight Time from Earth - 60 to 70 hours

* Increase in Mean Distance from Earth - 1.5 inches per year (3.8 cm per year)


The Moon's orbit is not circular, but is an ellipse or elongate oval. The furthest out point (410,452 km; 252,586 miles) in the orbit is called the lunar apogee. The closest point (359,663 km; 221,331 miles) is the lunar perigee. The Earth's orbit also has an aphelion relative to the Sun, which occurs in Summer, and a perihelion, which is in Winter. The closer approach of the Earth at perihelion to the Sun increases the amount of light received by the lunar face, making the Moon seem brighter in the winter (when the atmosphere tends to be clearer) and less so in summer at aphelion.

One of the above parameters reveals why we see the Moon in the first place. The mean orbital inclination to the ecliptic of just greater than 5° means that the Moon's orbit is offset enough so that the Sun is not routinely blocked by the Moon and the Moon is not so blocked by Earth that sunlight fails to hit it. At any time of the year, say the time when this paragraph was written on August 10 of 2006, the Sun arises for the day from a direction South of East, transits in an arc towards the sky's zenith, sets towards the West. (This path is maximum at the Summer Solstice and moves progressively lower towards a minimum height in the south part of the Celestial Sphere until Winter Solstice, then starts rising in the Sphere until the Summer Solstice). The position of the Sun at High Noon varies over time owing to the 365 day year that Earth takes to orbit (revolve) around the Sun (see page 20-2). The Moon follows a similar path during any same period but is displaced 5° to the west. The first Crescent Moon (see below) reaches above the southwestern horizon early at night. Each successive night is marked by the Moon having undergone a shift along its orbit of 13.18° towards the southeastern direction of the orbital arc; the Moon arises progressively later each new night (about 50 minutes) as it moves through its sequence of phases (described below). These solar-lunar patterns of arc transits will vary depending upon the latitude of the observer.

The total intensity or brightness of reflecting surfaces at specific points or areas varies with the phases of the Moon (progressive waxing and waning due to illumination changes, depending on relative positions of the Sun, Earth, and Moon). The lunar photometric function, a plot of intensity versus phase angle, represents the intensity mathematically. The degree of polarization of light from the Moon also shifts with the phase angle and can show considerable variations in different regions of the Moon, again related to composition and textural changes. These two similar diagrams show how the observed phases are controlled by the relative positions of the Moon and Earth with respect to solar illumination.

The Moon's phases, with actual photos; from the World Book, 1975.
 Diagram illustrating the phases (extent of illumination) of the Moon.

19-2: What are the vernacular names applied to the phases of the Moon? ANSWER

To reiterate: The Moon rises and sets in roughly the same places on the horizon as the Sun, but about 50 minutes later each night. Every 29-30 days there is a New Moon - we cannot see it because it is near the bright late afternoon Sun in the sky. A few days later we can see a thin Crescent Moon, with its limited light surface on its eastern flank, which appears high in the western sky soon after sunset. This first visible sliver of illuminated Moon (the boundary between light and dark is the terminator) was actually in the Celestial Sphere and was rising during the latter part of the day, but this could not been seen because of the blinding effect of daylight from the west. Each successive night, as its phase gets greater (called waxing), the Moon becomes seen further south along its transit arc and sets a bit later until about 14 days after the New Moon we see a Full Moon. The Sun and the Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth, and after the Sun sets, the Moon rises. A Full Moon usually arises during the evening hours and, depending on when dawn occurs, may be visible much of the night. For the next 14 days the Moon's phases wane back to a crescent on its West which rises shortly ahead of the Sun, before the whole process repeats. In the summer's long daylight, a largely illuminated Moon can often be seen well into the sky in daylight. The entire sequence of phases is called a lunation. The amount of an illuminated Moon, at any phase, and the duration it is visible to a ground observer will change with the seasons, since in Winter darkness can last up to 14 hours and in high Summer it can be light beyond dawn for as much as 16 hours. And, the path actually followed by the Moon across the sky depends on where the observer lives - it is latitude-dependent.

The first telephoto image of the Moon's surface was made in the 1860s. Prior to the space program, almost all lunar studies used the telescope. At first, emphasis was on optical observations (and photographs) within the visible spectrum. Among the first measurements was the Moon's albedo, the ratio (stated as a percentage) of the light reflected to the light incident on a surface. (The Earth's albedo is 39% on average [with slight fluctuations due to varying cloud cover] and Venus falls between 70% and 90% [from strong reflections of sunlight by a thick planetwide cloud cover].) By comparing albedos measured on possible terrestrial counterparts, the lunar albedo offers insights into the composition, texture, and structure of its surface materials. Once established, the trick is to interpret these albedo values.

We can measure the albedos of likely surface materials in the laboratory, where we can vary the textures and illumination conditions. In this way, lunar scientists postulated that the dark areas (maria, singular - mare) were some type of volcanic material, most likely basalt. The lighter areas (terrae, singular terra, or highlands) were more enigmatic. Several other volcanic types could produce albedos in the proper range, but uncertainties about particle size and other variables inhibited definitive identification. The first unmanned landers, the five Surveyors, resolved the problem. The answer was that the highlands included a different group of rock types, of which anorthosite was prevalent. Anorthosite is an igneous rock that contains large amounts of light-colored feldspars.

Investigators judged that the albedo values for both the maria and highlands were consistent with scattering by a granular or fragmental loose surface covering having textures associated with unconsolidated surface materials (some thought a landed spacecraft would sink into loose, almost powdery rock debris, which, fortunately, didn't happen). This covering is now called the regolith or also the lunar "soil". Regolith is produced by continual, repeated comminution of rock and rock fragments by multiple impact bombardments over millions of years.

At full Moon, the dark areas (maria, now known to be mainly basaltic lavas that filled huge impact basins) have albedos of 5% to 8%, while brighter areas, generally coincident with elevated terrain in the highlands (now proved to be feldspar-rich primitive lunar crust) range between 9% and 12%; these average out to about 7% for the full side facing Earth. These albedo differences are evident in this full Moon photograph, taken from the Lick Observatory in California (M. stands for Mare in the labels; A refers to Apollo Landing Sites [in red]; and major craters show in yellow):

Full Moon photograph taken through the Lick Observatory Telescope, with labeling of a few of the major craters (in yellow), mare basins (white), and Apollo Landing sites (red).

In the above photo, the two most obvious major features are the dark patches (maria, or basin lavas), with a smaller number of major craters, and the lighter-toned areas (terrae, or highlands), with numerous larger craters. Surprisingly, good maps of these major features are seldom found in texts or on the Web. Here is one that shows many of the best-known craters; note that the maria are labeled with their English translations of the original Latin used in the above full Moon image (those labels starting with M.):

Sketch map of the Moon, showing major craters and maria and Apollo landing sites; U.S. Air Force map; source of this map - World Book, 1975.

The above Lick Observatory rendition is striking in its sharpness, but in achieving the tonal balance that highlights the craters, the ray deposits from Tycho, Copernicus, and others are strongly suppressed. Tycho (85 km rim-to-rim diameter) whose very long ejecta rays are visible to the naked eye from Earth, is very conspicuous in this next full Moon image in which the lighting and processing are optimized to display these ejecta deposits. Again, Tycho is near the bottom, with a dark rim, and at the locus of the converging light rays; this implies that it formed recently enough (in the last billion years) so that the ray material has not been obliterated.

Another fullmoon telescope picture, here emphasizing the long light-toned ray deposits from the dark-rimmed Tycho; enhanced Lick Observatory photo.

19-3: How many of the Apollo landings were in the maria; in the highlands? ANSWER

19-4: What would have happened to the Apollo program if the lunar surface indeed had a thick cover of powdery dust? ANSWER

This next image is a novelty that has practical value. It is an artist's painting in black and white of the lunar frontside made from a combination of telescope observations and imagery obtained from some of the lunar missions to be described. It is remarkably like the actual photos through the telescope but the lunar relief has been enhanced:

Artist's painting of the front side of the Moon

Always a spectacular event, which happens rather frequently (a few years to a decade or so), is a lunar eclipse. In some parts of the world a total eclipse may occur; elsewhere the eclipse is partial. A lunar eclipse takes place when the Earth is on a line between the Sun and the Moon, blocking out much of the sunlight that had been illuminating the lunar surface (a solar eclipse results when the Moon moves across the line between the Sun and the Earth). A record of a near total eclipse visible over much of the United States is this photo taken on November 8, 2003.

Lunar eclipse of Nov. 8, 2003.

The Moon can change color during different seasons. The best example is the "Harvest Moon", particularly associated with the Fall season. Then, the Moon has a distinctive orange tint. This modification from the normal yellow-white is largely the result of dust in the atmosphere scattering shorter wavelengths, owing to increased plowing as crops are harvested and fields cleared. (The appellation "Blue Moon" refers not to color but to the occasional situation when there are two full Moons in one calendar month.)

Ground photo of the orange Harvest Moon.

By selecting certain major features on the Moon's front face as reference points, one notes that the same face of the lunar sphere is seen during the entire period of its revolution around the Earth. This curiosity is the result of the Moon's sidereal revolution period of 27.3 days. The sidereal period is measured relative to a chosen star or star group. The Moon's rotation is almost exactly the same - 27.3... - as its sidereal revolution. In effect, a center point on the lunar frontside is seemingly locked onto the Earth, i.e., an imaginary line perpendicular to the lunar surface at that point would extend towards the Earth's center at all times during the Moon's orbital transit. This notable condition describes a state of captured or synchronous rotation. Because of this the Moon always presents approximately the same face to Earth observers. The synodic lunar month is 29.5 days. This increase in time by approximately 2.2 days results from the combined relative motions of both Earth and Moon forward in orbit around the Sun during which the illumination angle with respect to the Sun will be shifted; the Moon thus requires extra time for the first sliver of reflected light at New Moon to be seen from a reference point on Earth to compensate for the angular advance of the Earth-Moon system since the previous lunar month began.

19-5: What is the difference between rotation and revolution of a planetary body? ANSWER

19-6: Most people live in the Northern Hemisphere of Earth. It is a little known fact to many such individuals that the Moon is "upside-down" in the Southern Hemisphere, with Tycho near the top and Mare Imbrium towards the bottom. Can you explain why? ANSWER

Although the Moon is nearly a sphere, with one side always facing Earth, inspection of photographs taken on different dates discloses an apparent shift of major landmarks relative to reference point at the lunar limbs. Mapping demonstrates that almost 60% of the total surface (front and back) of the lunar sphere has been seen from Earth through telescopes. Because this seems to be a "wobbling" or "rocking back and forth", the term libration (from a Latin word for "balance") is applied to the phenomenon. Librations result in part from apparent (optical) displacements that bring more of both equatorial and polar regions into view. The motions involve variations in angular velocity of the Moon's revolution in elliptical orbit, tilt of its rotational axis relative to its orbital plane (inclined at 5°09' to the ecliptic), and parallax effects for different observation points on Earth. There is also a real libration owing to varying gravitational pull by Earth as the Earth-Moon distance varies and by the Moon's departure from perfect sphericity.

Like the Earth, that departure is due in large part to equatorial bulging owing to a once faster lunar rotation. In the early Earth-Moon history, the Moon was much closer to Earth [perhaps almost to the Roche Limit - the closest distance two large bodies can have stable orbits before the smaller one breaks apart from gravitational force - which for the Moon is ~2.9 x the Earth's radius or about 18000 km] but had then both a different rotation and revolution than today. Over time, tidal interaction between Earth and its satellite, which results in transfering angular momentum to the Moon, has caused 1) both the latter and Earth to slow down their rotations, and 2) the Moon to recede farther into space, expanding its orbit. However, on the Earth side (nearside or frontside; by agreement the term "backside" was declared "anathema", farside being preferred), there is an added component to the rotational bulging which occurs in the highlands (the farside surface is mostly highlands and is the manifestation of an early thicker crust). This so-called Lunar Bulge was described by G.A. Mills in 1968 as shown in this smoothed-contour illustration (the lines are in kilometer above and below a mean frontside elevation).

The nearside Lunar Bulge as calculated by Mills.

This bulge is not due to just higher crustal topography alone (note that the topographic relief is greater than 4 kilometers - almost 3 miles) that is brought out by the elevations in the flat lower maria. It appears to come from a thickening of the subcrust, with an increased density. Current interpretation holds it to have formed early in lunar history, when the Moon was much closer to Earth, as imposed by Earth's gravitational attraction that caused plastic rock to move towards the parent body. In time, the bulge was "frozen in".

Other remote sensing methods were applied to the Moon prior to the Space Age. Even before the pre-Apollo and Apollo programs, scientists examined the Moon in the multispectral mode (see a recent example on page 19-6b). The simplest approach was to use photofilters that pass limited spectral ranges. Thus, they examined the Moon in the UV, blue, green, red, IR, and other spectral intervals. This technique brought out variations in color shades that appeared to distinguish different surface units. Some maria tended to have stronger blue components, while others were more reddish. Differences between maria and highlands were accentuated. These subtle variations related to the influence of elements, such as calcium, iron, and titanium, on the behavior of reflected light at different wavelengths. Some investigators made more exacting measurements by passing the light through a spectrometer, which provided semiquantitative estimates of variations in percentages of several of the common elements. Higher values for iron, magnesium, and calcium supported the surmise that low albedo lunar rocks were most probably of basic igneous composition (silica-low, but Fe/Mg-rich).

Astronauts orbiting the Moon described its color as dominantly medium to dark grays with tan overtones. We have obtained many pictures of the lunar surface, starting with unmanned pre-Apollo missions, then through numerous Apollo shots, and, afterwards, in a series of images sent back by the Galileo spacecraft as it passed Earth enroute for its rendezvous with Jupiter, and then by the Clementine orbiter (page 19-6b). This next photo shows a typical surface of the Moon as would be seen by astronauts orbiting above. The most obvious feature is indeed the most obvious component of the lunar landscape - impact craters of various sizes:

The cratered lunar surface (near the South Pole).

Large craters show three distinctive features attributable to impact (discussed in more detail in Section 18): 1) A raised rim; 2) Slumped walls; 3) A central peak.

A typical impact crater on the Moon.

Craters come in all sizes ranging from tiny depressions less than a meter wide to basin more than 1000 km in diameter. Typical of larger craters is Clavius (diameter = 225 km) near the lunar south pole and nearby Tycho; in turn, it hosts smaller craters that were imposed on it by later impacts; its central peak has been submerged by post-impact lava infill:

The crater Clavius.
Far and away, craters are the dominant geomorphic feature on the Moon. Galileo was the first to observe craters as he studied the lunar surface through his crude telescope. As later astronomers continued to look at the Moon, the explanation for the nature and origin of these craters almost universally favored volcanic activity. After all, on Earth no one suspected impact and many craters were associated with volcanoes. In 1870, the astronomer Richard Proctor first put forth arguments for impact. In 1992, the American geologist G. K. Gilbert championed impact origin for lunar craters based in part on his conclusion that Meteor Crater in Arizona was formed by a large iron meteorite. This opinion was largely ignored. Ralph Baldwin, in his book "The Face of the Moon", developed new ideas favoring impact, which gained some support. But, the belief that the dark areas on the Moon (the maria) were volcanic basalts kept the volcanoes hypothesis in the forefront. There were some scientists who passionately believed that lunar volcanism was responsible for most (nearly all) the circular depressions on the Moon. But by the start of the Apollo program in 1961, the majority of astrogeologists had come around to the impact origin for most craters on the Moon. Dr. Eugene M. Shoemaker led the way with his studies of terrestrial meteorite craters and nuclear craters. The role of impacts on the Moon was confirmed by the return of lunar samples in 1969, as will be discussed later in this Section.

First from orbiting spacecraft and then from the astronaut, humans got their first look at the lunar farside (never visible from Earth because the Moon is locked into a synchronous orbit). A typical image of the farside Full Moon, taken from the Apollo 12 Command Module as it orbited behind the earthside, shows much of the backside and part of the eastern limb seeable from Earth. Visible maria include Smythii, Marginis, and Crisium (near circular). This photo was taken when the Moon was largely dark as seen from Earth, but was between Earth and Sun

Much of the farside of the Moon; the upper left is on the eastern (right) side of the Moon visible from Earth.

19-7: Considering the upper diagonal half of the above full Moon image to be typical of the farside, how does it differ from the full Moon view seen from Earth? ANSWER

The best known crater on the far side, imaged by the Russian Lunik and Zond spacecraft, and shown here in a higher resolution photo taken by an Apollo 9 astronaut, is Tsiolkovsky (named for a Russian lunar astronomer) with its filling by dark lavas.

Apollo 9 photograph of Crater Tsiolkovsky on the Moon's farside.

As early as 1946, radar had provided the first ever images of the full Moon and selected regions. Sent from Earth transmitters, signals returned as polarized backscatter, in which we measure time delays and Doppler frequency shifts. Here are three mosaics in Mercator (top), Lambert Conformal, and Polar Stereographic projections made from reflections of 3.8 cm pulses sent by the Haystack Observatory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

Mosaics of the lunar surface as imaged by polarized radar backscatter waves received as reflections of 3.8 cm. pulses sent from Earth.

Just as was seen during our review of terrestrial remote sensing, the appearance of surface features can be quite different when optical and radar imaging are carried out. That is evident in this pair of images (visible left; radar right):

Optical and radar images of the Grimaldi region of the Moon.

As decades past, ever better radar images were obtained from Earth. This view of the lunar south polar region, made with radar at Arecibo, confirms the statement:

Radar view of the south polar lunar surface.

Earth-based radar studies of the lunar surface continue to this day. One objective has been to use radar to map the topography of the lunar polar regions where (as explained later in this subsection on the Moon) there is a possibility of frozen water (ice) that could be extracted if a manned lunar base is eventually established. Here is a Goldstone radar mosaic of a 500 x 400 km surface around the Moon's South Pole, along with a general map of its topography (blue is low; red is high):

Image mosaic and map of the south polar region of the Moon.

Infrared scanners, operating through ground telescopes, can acquire thermal emission images of the Moon's surface. The ideal time to sense the full Moon is during a total lunar eclipse:

View of the Moon during a total lunar eclipse, produced by scanning its surface in the thermal IR (10 - 12 mm); the white dots are 'hot spots' of uncertain cause, but some are at the same locations as the so-called 'lunar transients' observed visually through telescopes, considered by some as signs of volcanic activity.

Under this condition, bright areas called "hotspots" appear, many of which, correlate with large lunar craters. These craters often contain dark lavas that absorb solar radiation (for more on this black body effect, see page 9-1) and re-emit it at higher radiant temperatures. During such times, observers also look for "lunar transients" (localized short-lived bright, often reddish glows visible to the eye) that some believe are evidence of volcanic activity and other thermal phenomena. Some people claim to see these volcanic events, even when the Moon is normally illuminated, particularly in the shadowed areas (dark phases).

19-8: Think of another possible explanation for these glowing transient phenomena. ANSWER

Some lunar scientists have been fascinated (almost obsessed) by lunar transients. The most frequent transient "hot spot" is the crater, Aristarchus, the brightest such feature on the Moon. Here is a Lunar Orbiter view of Aristrarchus:


Reports of events involving short-lived light emission at Aristarchus go back to the 6th Century. This plot of the days in the 29-day lunar month in which observations were recorded shows a provocative non-uniform distribution:

Frequency of occurrence of lunar transients at Aristarchus.

The above eclipse photo was taken more than 50 years ago from a ground telescope. In September 1999, a NASA spacecraft called MSX was in position around the Earth to image a total lunar eclipse using an IR channel. Here is the result; compare the hotspots here to those in the telescope image above.

September 1999 image of a total lunar eclipse, seen by the MSX (Mid-course Space Experiment) satellite.

The large bright spot is Tycho, which appears to be the hottest spot on the Moon's frontside.

Moon watchers, especially those in the amateur ranks, have been conditioned to look for transients whenever they are observing. (Much credit for this is due to Wini Cameron, who spent most of her professional life at NASA Goddard in promoting the validity of transients). Among this category of observations is the a controversial sighting, made by an amateur, Dr. Leon Stuart, that he also photographed through his home telescope. A strong visual flash appeared to him on November 15, 1953 for just a minute or so near the lunar terminator; his photo shows this as a bright dot.

Bright spot that was a momentary transient on the Moon's surface on Nov. 15, 1963.

At the time he interpreted this spot to be a glow from energy released when a meteorite struck the Moon's surface. Although believable, there were doubters, and the idea remained in dispute until 2002. Interpreters of the imagery telemetered back by the spacecraft Clementine (see page 20-6b) found an image that contained the estimated point of this possible impact. Here it is:

Clementine image containing a bright fresh surface scar in the location reported by Stuart in 1953.

This has all the "earmarks" of a fresh crater. It is made visible by the more brightly reflecting material tossed out by the impact. From the crater size (1.5 km diameter), an incoming bolide 20 m in diameter upon collision released about 500 kilotons of energy as it dug out this now confirmed impact structure that is probably the most common type of landform on the Moon.

The detectability of a lunar impact as it happened was confirmed by the deliberate crashing of the European lunar explorer SMART-1 onto the surface. Telescopes on Earth observed a bright flash that was photographed. This bright spot greatly diminished afterwards. This is one such photo of the event, which took place on September 3, 2006:

The flash of SMART-1's impact onto the lunar surface.

This map shows the areas of the Moon at which a number of observations of transients make them "leaders" in the "hot spot" category:

Map of lunar transients.

Because most lunar observers have never seen a transient, this topic is still treated with skepticism. If transients or hot spots exist, the three most likely explanations are: 1) the light released comes from an impact, 2) there are gases emitted that are excited by particle bombardment, making them glow (usually red), and 3) some type of electrostatic discharge is involved.

This page closes with an Internet reference, to a NASA website that provides a synopsis of the Moon: Moon overview