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Whether it feels or looks like spring or like winter outside your home today, spring is officially here. It slipped under my pillow while I was still asleep this morning at 6:28 am ET here in the Northern Hemisphere.
Our ancestors my not have understood what was happening to our planet from a celestial viewpoint, but they were more careful observers of the world around them and definitely marked today as something significant. Ancient observers built devices, buildings and places like Stonehenge to measure and mark changes in the Sun’s movements. Of course, that was what they thought was happening – that the Sun was moving closer or further from Earth. They may have been wrong on that part, but they were able to mark that today was midway between the sun’s lowest path across the sky in winter and highest path across the sky in summer.
Though we visualize an equinox as occurring on the imaginary dome of Earth’s sky, it is a very real point on Earth’s orbit that is halfway between the two extremes of the sun’s path in your sky. “Your sky” because though the equinox occurs at the same time for all of us. The seasons are based on whether you are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.
One thing you can observe easily at each equinox (no Stonehenge required) is that the sun rises due east and sets due west from where you live. An equinox happens when the ecliptic – or sun’s path – intersects the celestial equator, that imaginary line above Earth’s equator.
Go outside around sunset and sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to local landmarks. You can then use those landmarks to find those cardinal directions in the months ahead and observe how the sunrise and sunset points move southward or northward. I showed my young sons this many years ago by crudely tracking the sunrise moving from window to window during the year from the vantage point of our East-facing family room. It was a pretty interesting lesson in science.
Today the sun is on the celestial equator. It may be springlike outside or it may still seem like winter, but the new season has arrived.
For those of us in the northern U.S. or Canada or at a similar latitude, the Big Dipper is always above the horizon. That means it is described as circumpolar. The mnemonic to remember for the Big Dipper is “spring up and fall down” to describe its appearance in our northern sky.
The Big and Little Dippers are asterisms – a prominent pattern or group of stars, typically having a popular name but smaller than a constellation. The Big Dipper ascends in the northeast on spring evenings, and it descends in the northwest on fall evenings.
“Follow the Drinking Gourd” is an American folk song that used “Drinking Gourd” as another name for the Big Dipper. The lyrics, according to legend, came from a conductor of the Underground Railroad, called Peg Leg Joe, as a way to guide some fugitive slaves.
The “drinkin’ gou’d” alludes to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. Used in the song, it was a code name for the Big Dipper which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and to the North and freedom.
Polaris is a special star because it always stays in the same spot in the northern sky. The entire northern sky appears to turn around it because Polaris is located more or less above the northern axis (pole) of the Earth, and the wheeling of the stars across the dome of night is really due to Earth’s turning, after all. Polaris is part of the harder to find star pattern known as the Little Dipper.
As is often the case, the Moon looked full last night although it just became an official Full Moon as I hit the publish button on this post at 10:54 am ET. It will certainly look very full tonight.
This winter-into-spring moon is often called the Worm Moon, and last year I chose the name the name Earth Cracks Moon. The latter sounds rather ominous, but like the Worm Moon it refers to the heaving soil as we transition into spring with cold nights and warm days. That thawing ground will be marked in many areas with the earthworm casts that appear as they emerge. They are very attractive to another symbol of spring – worm-loving robins. The Full Crust Moon is another name that was used by some Indian tribes.
Although the wind in March is often quite blustery in some parts of the U.S., I optimistically chose the gentler Hopi name for this lunar occurrence of the Whispering Wind Moon. The Hopi tribe now primarily live on the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona. Their name for this Full Moon is fitting for the tribe because Hopi is a shortened form of their autonym, Hopituh Shi-nu-mu which means “The Peaceful People” or “Peaceful Little Ones.”
New World settlers called this last Full Moon of winter the Lenten Moon and also the Sap Moon. The latter name marks the time of tapping maple trees. The Lenten Moon marks the religious observance in the liturgical calendar that occurs during this lunar month. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later, before Easter Sunday.
As Lent is seen as the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement, and self-denial, it fit well with the non-religious view of starting the year anew for farmers, ranchers and those looking to do “spring cleaning” and get a fresh start.
There are more Indian names for the Full Moons than the Colonists used because there were many tribes in many locations and their names for the Moon phases were based on their local observations of nature. Some northern tribes knew this as the Full Crow Moon, because the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter. Other names used by Native American Tribes: Rain (Diegueno). Bud Moon (Kiowa). Eagle Moon,Rain Moon (Cree). Green Moon (Pima). Deer Moon (Natchez). Moon of Winds (Celtic). Lizard Moon (San Juan). Death Moon (Neo-Pagan). Wind Strong Moon (Taos). Amaolikkervik Moon(Inuit). Little Frog Moon (Omaha). Little Spring Moon (Creek). Crane Moon (Potawatomi). Long Days moon (Wishram). Big Famine Moon (Choctaw). Moose Hunter Moon (Abenali). Whispering Wind Moon (Hopi). Little Spring Moon (Muscokee). Fish Moon (Colonial American). Snow Sore Eyes Moon(Dakota). Catching Fish Moon (Agonquin). Snow Crust Moon (Anishnaabe). Spring Moon (Passamaquoddy). Much Lateness Moon (Mohawk). Chaste Moon (Medieval English). Buffalo Calf moon (Arapaho, Sioux). Seed (Dark Janic), Plow Moon (Full Janic). Strawberry, Windy Moon, Lenten Moon (Cherokee). Worm Moon, Sugar Moon, Crow Moon, Crust Moon, Sap Moon. (Algonquin).
Not all calendars, including our traditional Western calendar, follow the phases of the Moon. In the solar Hebrew calendar, the months change with the new Moon, so the full Moons fall in the middle of the month. A solar year is about 11 days longer than twelve lunar months, so to keep holidays tied to their seasons, the Hebrew calendar occasionally repeats the month of Adar.
In the Islāmic calendar, the months start with the first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon, a few days after the New Moon. Unlike the Hebrew calendar, the Islāmic calendar has no leap days or leap months to stay in sync with the seasons, and Islāmic holidays occur approximately 11 days earlier each solar year.
On February 16, 2017, here in the Western Hemisphere, Venus will reach its greatest illuminated extent. Those of you in Australia, New Zealand, Asia will see this on February 17.
You shouldn’t need an “event” to look up at the night sky in wonder, but this might be a reason to look up tonight and know a bit more about what you are seeing.
Look for Venus in the west after sunset and you will also see Mars nearby to the left (south) and a bit higher. That “evening star” is at its most brilliant because its day/illuminated side is covering more square area of Earth’s sky than in its 9.6-month appearance in the evening sky.
If you looked through a telescope, you would see that Venus’ disk is just a bit more than one-quarter illuminated by sunshine, and the full Venus is always on the far side of the sun from us. So, we are seeing Venus as a crescent at its greatest illuminated extent – and still, it is spectacular.
We can refer to tonight’s February Full Moon as the Snow Moon, Ice Moon, Hunger Moon, Old, Storm or Grandfather Moon. Most names for the month refer to very wintery weather. Of course, if you’re in a warmer climate, they may seem inappropriate.
Tonight’s Full Moon also coincides with a penumbral lunar eclipse. They are not as spectacular or as noticeable as a total lunar eclipse. When the Moon moves through the outer part of Earth’s shadow (which is known as the penumbra), the shadow blocks part of the sun’s rays. Therefore, the Moon will only appear slightly darker than usual.
To Colonial Americans, this was the Trapper’s Moon or simply the Winter Moon.
Tonight’s Full Moon will fall on a snow-covered Paradelle, so the moonlight should be quite bright, even with that Earth shadow.
We entered 2017 with a nice pairing of the planets of love and war in the sky. Venus and Mars were close together all through January. The Moon was right there too as the year began and it will work its way back to the planets – at least in our view – as the month ends January 31.
But the major astronomical event of 2017 will be a total solar eclipse. We have not had a total solar eclipse in the mainland U.S. since 1979.
It is two seasons away, but on August 21, 2017 the Moon will completely block the sun, and this solar eclipse can be seen across the United States.
But, you will have to be at the right place at the right time to see totality (when the sun is totally blocked by the moon). There is an area that is a narrow path about 75 miles wide between Oregon and South Carolina that will be prime viewing. You can view a detailed map of the eclipse online. Perhaps, you should plan now for a little vacation in August to see the eclipse.
If that’s too far off to think about, or if you’re not ready to take an eclipse vacation, then here’s an alternative. On February 11, we will have a penumbral lunar eclipse. This is when the Moon enters the lighter shadow of the earth. But the effect is hard to notice and a lot less cool than the August event.