August 29th, 2015
Tonight the Moon turns full and is, apparently, a “super moon.” I hate to sound like a grumpy astronomer, but I’m not a fan of the super moon. Up until 1999, I’d never even heard of it. In fact, the term didn’t even exist, certainly not in the astronomical world. Prior to 1999, every full Moon was just the same as every other. Sure, they can be pretty and nice to look at – especially at sunset – but beyond that, a full Moon usually isn’t very super.
So what is a super moon?
The term isn’t even astronomical. It was invented by the astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979 and he defined it as being any full Moon that occurs when the Moon is within 90% of its closest approach to the Earth. Well that’s all fine and dandy except for one thing: this happens more frequently than you’d think. On average, it happens about three times every fourteen months but this year is particularly super.
There will be six super moons in 2015.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if your favorite food is Chinese and you eat six Chinese meals in twelve days, it kinda stops being super. In fact, it becomes pretty ordinary. And this month’s full Moon is especially ordinary as it isn’t even the closest full Moon of the year. That won’t happen for another month.
I can’t help but ask, “what’s so super about it?” Sure, it’ll be a little bigger and brighter, but not by much – and, arguably, not so much that you’d notice the difference with just your eyes.
So what’s my idea of a super moon?
My first super moon comes from my childhood. As a ten year old child growing up in England, I’d go to bed at nine thirty and I’d frequently lie in bed, staring out the window, watching the Moon, stars and planets as they rose over the trees on the eastern horizon. This is how I learnt astronomy.
One night, in early May 1982, is particularly engrained in my memory. (I was nerdy, even then, and kept an astronomical journal.) It was very cloudy night, but the Moon was shining brilliantly through the clouds. As a kid, I used to love to watch the clouds across the Moon. There’s something about the way the brilliant white light shines through the dark grey clouds that gives the moonlight a very pearly glow.
The Moon remained hidden for quite some time. I kept thinking it would break through the clouds and I would see it all, but somehow the clouds always managed to cheat me.
When it finally happened, it happened quickly and briefly. The Moon fleetingly appeared through a crack in the sky and then was gone. My soul satisfied, I must have turned over and closed my eyes to sleep.
My second super moon came at the end of the 20th century.
In 1999, the year I first heard about the super moon, we had a full Moon that really felt super. And there were a number of very good reasons for this. For one thing, the full Moon occurred on December 22nd, the winter solstice, and was at its closest to the Earth.
On top of this, it was also the closest full Moon of the year, which meant we experienced a full Moon to remember. Not only did it appear 14% larger, but it was also 7% brighter. The media made a big deal of it – with quotes, numbers and data from NASA – and that was when I first heard the term “super moon.” I was visiting friends in Wisconsin at the time and I can remember going out into the snowy woods, building a fire and sitting out under the stars and the light of this amazing Moon.
It felt especially exciting as it came just nine days before December 31st, 1999 – like we were astronomically celebrating the coming of the new millennium in style.
My third super moon memory came almost exactly thirty years after my first. America by Simon and Garfunkel, has always been a favorite and, perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve always loved the line “and the Moon rose over an open field…”
I always imagined a field of grain at sunset, the wheat catching the golden glow of the setting sun as the pearly white full Moon rose over the horizon. One evening, in early April 2012, I experienced this for myself.
At that time I was travelling a lot for business and, on this particular evening, I was driving home from a trip to St Louis. Somewhere along I-64, close to the border between Illinois and Indiana, I passed an open field and caught sight of the full Moon rising. I caught my breath for a moment as I witnessed those lyrics come to life.
That moment, coming in the middle of a divorce, was somehow comforting to me.
Now those are super moons.
Today’s Astronomical Events
05:16 UT – Venus appears 9.4° south of Mars. (Venus: 7% illuminated, magnitude -4.3, diameter 53.2”. Mars: 99% illuminated, magnitude 1.8, diameter 3.7”. Cancer, pre-dawn sky.)
18:35 UT – Full Moon. (Naked eye, Aquarius, visible all night.)
18:42 UT – Mercury is at aphelion. Distance to Sun: 0.4667 AU (63% illuminated, magnitude 0.1, diameter 6.5”. Virgo, not visible.)
The constellation Pegasus (the Winged Horse) culminates at midnight tonight. (Naked eye, all night.)
Events in bold involve objects and/or events that are visible with the naked eye.
All times are in Universal Time (UTC). To convert the time to your timezone, click here.
Astronomical events taken from 2015: An Astronomical Year, available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom. Sky simulations created using the Mobile Observatory app for Android devices.
2015: An Astronomical Year
|2016: An Astronomical Year||2016: The Night Sky Sights||The Astronomical Almanac (2015-2019)||The Amateur Astronomer’s Notebook (Pocket Edition)|
(Kindle & Paperback)
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Details of all available books across the world can be found here or by visiting the author’s page on Amazon. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact me at astronomywriter “at” gmail.com