Tag Archives: Night Sky

Happy Equinox and Supermoon!

Ready for a change of season? The March Equinox will occur on Sunday, March 20th this year, marking the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere and fall in the southern hemisphere. The exact time is 23:21 (or 11:21 p.m.) at Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is 4:21 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, 7:21 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time).

Equinox” means “equal night” in Latin and, twice a year (in March and September), the sun shines directly on the equator, and the length of day and night are nearly equal in all parts of the world.

In addition, the full moon that heralds the Equinox on the night of March 19th will appear especially large and bright, due to its closer-than-usual relation to Earth. This supermoon, or perigee moon, is due to rise in the east and be the biggest in almost 20 years. If you are blessed with clear skies tonight, you will probably want to have a look.

The Farmers Almanac calls the March full moon the Full Worm Moon and notes:  “As the temperature begins to warm and the ground begins to thaw, earthworm casts appear, heralding the return of the robins.”

Northern Native American tribes knew this moon as the Full Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter. They also used Full Crust Moon because the snow cover became crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night.

The Dakota Sioux named it the especially poetic Moon When Eyes Are Sore From Bright Snow. The Full Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is a Colonial American variation. More than one other culture calls it the Windy Moon. In Medieval England it was known as the Chaste Moon.

I’ve long been quite entranced with the full moon names and their variations. Of course, they reflect both the need to mark passing time and the way that time was experienced by people who were living close to the land. Lunar time-keeping pre-dated our modern calendars (and some calendars, like the Jewish and Chinese calendars, are still lunar-based.) The Farmer’s Almanac has a good list of Native American full moon names and how each came to be.

Other, even older, cultures have had moon naming traditions, too. This site lists full moon names from Chinese, Celtic, Pacific Island, Native American, Pagan, and other cultures.

Lots of people garden using the phases of the moon. The good news is that there isn’t one best time to plant — Each aspect of planting has an associated moon phase, based on how much moisture is pulled up through the soil by the monthly pull of the moon (much the way the moon influences the tides.)

The time just after the full moon is an especially good time for planting root crops, as the gravitational pull is high (adding more moisture to the soil) and the moonlight is decreasing, contributing energy to the roots. For this reason, the waning moon is also a good time to plant bulbs and transplants.

The Farmer’s Almanac offers a wonderful moon phase calendar for the U.S. that allows you to plug in your location and get the exact time of your local full moon.

Enjoy the new season and the supermoon!

Photos: NASA (Moon), Susan Sachs Lipman

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Look up! It’s the Geminid Meteor Shower and a Lunar Eclipse

Now playing overhead: The dramatic Geminid Meteor Shower, which many astronomers agree is the best meteor shower of the year. Following that,  stargazers could keep their necks craned for 2010’s only complete lunar eclipse, which coincides with Winter Solstice December 21.

The Geminid Meteor Shower is forecast to peak late Mon./early Tues. Dec. 13-14, between around midnight and sunrise, in North America. If you can’t stay up that late, not to worry — astronomers tell us that some meteors should be visible as soon as darkness hits. In addition, the shower lasts for days before and after the peak date, and there have already been reports from around the world of people spotting spectacular fireball-like celestial streaks.

What is a meteor shower?

Meteors occur when the Earth passes through streams of dust and debris from ancient comets which have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. (When the comet has flown close to the sun, its dirty ice evaporated and that, in turn, caused the comet dust to spew into space.) Scientists believe that the Geminids actually come from an asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, which is really the skeleton of an extinct comet. The Earth passes through this particular debris stream each December, and is said to originate near the constellation Gemini.

How to watch the Geminid Meteor Shower

Good news! The Geminids should be visible with the naked eye in North America and perhaps in other parts of the world. Sky watchers in cold climates should bundle up, grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), and perhaps a blanket, head outside where you can see the largest patch of night sky possible (with as little city light as possible), and look up.

Because meteor showers last for days before and after the projected peak, be sure to scan the skies during the surrounding days, if you can. This time of year, clouds can obscure the Geminids on the peak day, as can the moon, which will be in its first quarter.

A thermos of hot chocolate is a great accompaniment for the Geminids.

This shower has been getting stronger every year it’s been recorded, going back the the 1860s. It could be “an amazing annual display”, according to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about the Geminids and where and when to see them in your local night sky.

This movie of the 2008 Geminids comes from a space camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

After the Geminids, night-sky gazers can look forward to a full lunar eclipse that will coincide with the winter solstice Dec. 21.

What is a Lunar Eclipse?

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through a point in its orbit when the Earth is directly between it and the sun, and the moon is in the shadow of the Earth.

In the Western Hemisphere, the eclipse will “officially” begin on Dec. 21 at 12:29 a.m. EST (9:29 p.m. PST on Dec. 20). As with the Geminids, the best way to see the eclipse is to hope for clear weather, go outside, and look up. It takes about 45 minutes to notice any changes in the moon’s appearance as the shadow moves slowly across it. The lunar eclipse should be visible in North and South America, the northern and western part of Europe, and a small part of northeast Asia. A complete lunar eclipse won’t happen again in North America until 2014.

Space.com has more great information about the lunar eclipse.


Celebrate May’s Full Moon

Gaisberg_and_rising_full_moon

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, today is the night and day of May’s full moon. The May Moon is known as the Full Flower Moon, in the moon naming tradition that was used by the Native Americans, largely Algonquins, who lived in the Northeast U.S., from New England to Lake Superior in the Midwest.

The Full Flower Moon received its name because of the abundant flowers that carpeted the land during its time. It’s also been called the Full Corn Planting Moon and the Milk Moon.

I’ve long been quite entranced with the full moon names and their variations. Of course, they reflect both the need to mark passing time and the way that time was experienced by people who were living close to the land. Lunar time-keeping pre-dated our modern calendars (and some calendars, like the Jewish and Chinese calendars, are still lunar-based.) The Farmer’s Almanac has a good list of Native American full moon names and how each came to be.

Other, even older, cultures have had moon naming traditions, too. This site lists full moon names from Chinese, Celtic, Pacific Island, Native American, Pagan, and other cultures.

Lots of people garden using the phases of the moon. The good news is that there isn’t one best time to plant — Each aspect of planting has an associated moon phase, based on how much moisture is pulled up through the soil by the monthly pull of the moon (much the way the moon influences the tides.)

The time just after the full moon is an especially good time for planting root crops, as the gravitational pull is high (adding more moisture to the soil) and the moonlight is decreasing, contributing energy to the roots. For this reason, the waning moon is also a good time to plant bulbs and transplants.

One great moon is known to all farmers, late September or early October’s Harvest Moon (also known as the Blood Moon, Blackberry Moon, or Hunter’s Moon), which traditionally shines its all-night beacon to help farmers gather their crops. In the Northern Hemisphere, it happens to be an especially close, bright moon, in addition to sometimes lighting up the sky for days. I wrote about the Harvest Moon here.

The Farmer’s Almanac offers a wonderful moon phase calendar for the U.S. that allows you to plug in your location and get the exact time of your local full moon.

Enjoy the Full Flower Moon!

Photo: Matthias Kobel

A Solstice Bonfire: Welcome Winter!

I just got back from a big Solstice bonfire in a rural field. There were goats I could barely see bleeting in the background, and I watched as a little girl toasted her first marshmallow over the fire and laughed with unbridled joy.

Into the fire went our wishes and hopes for 2010 or, conversely, the quality, activity or thought we wished to leave permanently behind. Scrawled on paper, the unwanted characteristics caught fire — edges first, and then entire sheets, until they were flaming, at times floating, pieces of ephemera.

The wind shifted, the fire smoked. It lit up the faces of people I had met earlier in the warm house, over Jambalaya and a fantastic, wintery Squash and Mushroom Soup. There had been lots of great talk and dancing, people of all ages. One woman continued to burn personal papers from a long-term task, just ended today. She methodically lifted envelopes out of a shopping bag and into the fire. I saw tax returns, the Blue Cross logo — highly earthly reminders of the present — as she continued her own ritual, her own moving on, just as the Ancients had done when they gathered to lurch (sometimes frightened) from past to future, to warm themselves together in Winter and greet the recurring miracle of returning light.

Above us, the Pleiades shifted in their faint group. People sought out the Big Dipper, which was especially low on the horizon. A perfect crescent moon, angled like a cradle as if on a stage set, rose and hung orange in the inky sky. When we reluctantly left, our host invited us back to see the baby goats that would arrive on this same spot in the spring.


Photo: Jon Sullivan, pdphoto.org

Last — and Perhaps Best — Meteor Shower of the Year: The Geminids

The last big sky show of the year, indeed the decade, will occur tonight. And some astronomers say it may be the best of the year.

Other showers, like the Perseids, tend to get more attention, perhaps because they occur in warm weather for many viewers, but the Geminid show might persuade even reluctant sky watchers to bundle up, grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), head outside where you can see a patch of night sky, and look up.

This shower has been getting stronger every year it’s been recorded, going back the the 1860s. It could be “an amazing annual display”, according to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Scientists believe that the Geminids actually come from an asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, which is itself an extinct comet. (Most meteor showers come from comets.) Comets create meteor showers by flying close to the sun, which causes the comet’s dirty ice to evaporate and that, in turn, causes comet dust to spew into space. When the comet dust enters the earth’s atmosphere, we see it as meteor flashes. Because asteroids don’t usually produce dust, it is thought that 3200 Phaethon is really the skeleton of an ancient comet.

People around the globe have already been reporting seeing good meteor showers. The Geminids are due to peak Sunday, December 13, at about Midnight, Eastern Standard Time. Any time between about 9 p.m. one’s local time and one’s local sunrise the morning of Monday, December 14, should offer good viewing, and there are showers predicted even a couple of days on either end of that.

At far Southern latitudes, the viewing window will be a little smaller. This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about just where and when to find the Geminids in your local night sky.

You don’t need any special equipment to view the Geminids. In fact, the naked eye is best for meteor viewing, as it allows you to follow a big swath of the sky. As mentioned before, get comfortable. You do need clear skies, and an area with as little light as possible.

If the weather is clear, skies should be pretty dark, because the moon is just two days shy of new.

This movie of the 2008 Geminids comes from a space camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center. You can also see the movie here.

The Leonid Meteor Shower is Coming

Sky fans: An exciting meteor shower is headed our way. Anyone who lives in the Northern Hemisphere may be in for a good old-fashioned sky show, just by looking up.

The Leonids are debris from a wandering comet that appear as shooting stars each November. They often provide one of the best shows of the year, if the skies are clear and the moon is not full.

This year promises a stellar show, if clear skies hold, because the moon is almost new.

Peak Leonid viewing should occur early Tuesday, November 17, around 1 a.m. PST. There are expected to be fine shows for hours, and even days before and after that.

Just before dawn is generally a good time to catch some shooting stars, especially because Leonids generate from the constellation Leo, which is visible in the east before dawn.

You won’t need any special equipment to see the Leonids. The naked eye is actually best. If possible, get to a high spot, away from city lights. A backyard or front porch can work just as well. Just be sure to give your eyes some time to adjust to the dark. So bundle up, get a comfortable chair, and hope for a good show!

For more info: Visit this NASA web site.

Photo: AP File Photo/ Leonids over Joshua Tree National Park.

Enjoy October’s Full Harvest Moon

Gaisberg_and_rising_full_moon

Songwriters have crooned about it. Farmers have counted on it. A Chinese festival honors it with special mooncakes. It’s the Harvest Moon, which traditionally shines its all-night beacon to help farmers gather their crops. In addition to being timed well for the job, the October full moon travels particularly close to the horizon in the Northern Hemisphere, so that it appears larger and closer than do other full moons throughout the year. It’s also visible for a longer amount of time than other moons — often all night — so that, especially before electricity, the harvesting needn’t stop at nightfall. And, if that weren’t enough, it also brightens the night sky for many successive days in a row.

All this week, those in northern latitudes will be able to go outside on clear nights and witness the Harvest Moon. It’s due to be at its absolute fullest at 1 am, Central U.S. Time, on October 4, so you’ll get good full moon shows all weekend, and fine shows throughout the week, whether you’re harvesting food, memories, or one of the last possibly warm full-moon nights.

Photo: Matthias Kobel