What’s So Super about the Moon on Sunday?

Skygazing is Superlative Enough Without Hyperbole

The Supermoon of March 19, 2011 (on the right) compared with a regular Full Moon of December 20, 2010 that also happened to be in eclipse. This comparison image was created by Marco Langbroek, from his backyard. Found at Wikimedia Commons in a Share and Share-alike license.

No doubt you’ve all seen the hype about the upcoming so-called “Supermoon” on August 10th (Sunday night). And, if you haven’t run into the hype before, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. I always wonder it, too. I’ve tried to see the difference between a regular moon and a Supermoon with  my own eyes. And, either I have really crappy glasses (which I kinda doubt), or I just haven’t seen the difference.  And, I doubt you would either, unless you could somehow magically arrange it so that a regular Full Moon and a Supermoon could appear in the sky at the same time.  Then, you might be able to see the difference in size in how the Moon appears from Earth during one of these events.

Since you can’t do that, you just sort of have to look at the upcoming Supermoon and say, “Hmm… yeah…” and then wonder what all the fuss is about.

So, what’s a Supermoon?  The correct term for the Full Moon we’re about to experience on Sunday is perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system. The term “Supermoon” is not actually an astronomy term. It’s more of an astrological thing, where soothsayers and people who think the Sun, Moon, and stars are going to tell them when to get rich, who they’re going to marry, and so on, all hang out. It’s really nothing to do with the actual astronomy of the situation.

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July Stargazing and Dark Skies

What’s Up Now

While you’re still digesting the last post about galaxies, let’s do a little stargazing. It’s one of the few free things you can go out and do without a lot of equipment. In fact, all you need are your eyes, some warm clothes, a place away from bright lights, and the willingness to simply gaze at the sky awhile.

I do a monthly skygazing video for Astrocast.TV, and you can watch it here to find out the highlights of July’s observing.



Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way Galaxy as seen from a wildness area in West Virginia in a time-exposure photograph. Because of light pollution, many people have never seen this sight. http://www.ForestWander.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0-ul], via Wikimedia Commons

Lately at our house, we’ve been getting a lot of stormy weather late in the afternoon into the evenings. So, the stargazing hasn’t been great. But, when it IS clear, especially right after sunset, I like to look at Venus, hanging low on the western horizon for a little while after the Sun goes down. After it gets plenty dark, then I look for the Big Dipper, which is starting to dip lower into the northern sky as the year progresses. If it’s really dark out, and I live in a fairly dark-sky area, I look for the Milky Way. It’s a bit easier to see late at night, since it will be running almost right overhead, from the north-northeast to the south. It kind of looks like a cloud, but it’s really a huge agglomeration of stars, gas, and dust—our galaxy, as seen from the inside.

“Losing the Dark”

The Milky Way, along with a great many other celestial sights that we used to take for granted seeing is largely disappearing from our view due to excessive light pollution, particularly in the cities. Even where I  live, light pollution isn’t completely cut off by the mountains that lie between me and the nearest big city. Still, I can see the Milky Way, and I think that everybody should be able to see it.

This is why I got involved with the International Dark-Sky Association as a member, and now I serve as a member of the group’s Education Committee. I also spent last year working on a video for the group that can be used by anybody who wants to reach out and help mitigate problems of light pollution. It’s available free of charge in “flatscreen” HD format from the IDA, and also as a free download for most fulldome and all classic planetariums from Loch Ness Productions.

The IDA is the premier light-pollution mitigation advocacy group in the world. Their Web page is chock full of useful tips and information about helping to ease the scourge of light pollution. Their goal is to advocate for wise use of lighting, and many communities are starting to see the advantages of wisely deploying lighting, staying safe, but preserving the health of humans and wildlife as well as returning our starry skies to us.

Stargazing is a sublime pleasure in life. People have been doing it throughout history, and astronomy was our first science. In a very real sense, if and when you go stargazing this summer, you will be extending our historical interest in the skies. Plus, it’s just an inspiring and interesting thing to do. So, get out there and check out the skies!  And, come back and share your experiences in comments!  (I moderate comments, but I check every day and I will share any useful and germane comments you write.)