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This past Memorial Day Weekend, we had some clear skies and some rainy ones. On one clear evening in Paradelle I was able to see a very bright “star” near the moon. It looks like a star, but it is Jupiter.

Venus sets in the west not too long after the sun sets, and the Moon and Jupiter were the two brightest objects in the sky.

I knew to look for a fainter true star. It is fainter but still one of the brightest stars, even in the moon’s glare. This is Spica. It is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. I’m not very knowledgeable about the zodiac, but I know it is a key star in that study.

Spica is a first-magnitude star, but it appears much fainter than Jupiter. That is because Jupiter is relatively close (or at least nearer)to Earth. This is what draws me to gazing at the night sky is my semi-knowledgeable way: the idea that Spica is about 262 light-years away, and I am looking at its light.

The universe makes me think about the original meanings of words like WONDERful and AWEsome.

Spica is the easiest star to spot in Virgo. There is a saying to find Spica you can “follow the arc of the Big Dipper to Arcturus and speed on to Spica.” But that probably doesn’t make it any easier for the average Earthling to find because most people know very little about the night sky.

Besides Spica, other bright stars in Virgo include many I had never heard of: β Virginis (Zavijava), γ Virginis (Porrima), δ Virginis (Auva) and ε Virginis (Vindemiatrix). Other fainter stars that were also given names are ζ Virginis (Heze), η Virginis (Zaniah), ι Virginis (Syrma) and μ Virginis (Rijl al Awwa).

Again, the wonder and awe of all this is discovering that one of the stars, 70 Virginis, has one of the first known extrasolar planetary systems and it contains a confirmed planet 7.5 times the mass of Jupiter. I can’t even really grasp the size of my own Earth. And the star Chi Virginis has one of the most massive planets ever detected, at a mass of 11.1 times that of Jupiter. And there are 35 verified exoplanets orbiting 29 stars in Virgo.

All this makes me feel like such a small part of the universe. But i also makes me feel part of the universe.

 

This first appeared on One-Page Schoolhouse
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moon

a waning “C” crescent and a waxing “D” crescent

I was out last night with a friend who commented that there was a clear “crescent Moon.” People commonly use that term when a sliver of Moon is showing, but there are two versions of the crescent sliver.

The Moon is always waxing (growing in the lit area we see) and waning, and moving closer and farther away from us. It is surprising how many people have never really noticed that the Moon looks like a looks like a “C” crescent, and later looks like a “D” in its waxing phase.

moon phases

The phases of the Moon as viewed looking southward from the Northern Hemisphere. Each phase would be rotated 180° if seen looking northward from the Southern Hemisphere. The upper part of the diagram is not to scale, as the Moon is much farther from Earth than shown here.

In Hinduism, every part of the cosmos is seen as an action of a god and time is the endless repetition of the same long cycle. In Hindu mythology, Soma represents the god of the Moon.

Soma rides a sky chariot drawn by white horses. Soma was also the name of the elixir of immortality that only the gods can drink. The elixir is stored on the Moon. When the gods drink soma, they draw away from the Moon and it becomes smaller. (I wrote about soma earlier in another context.)

Most people know that the Moon changes its distance from Earth continually because the orbit of the moon is not a perfect circle. It is more like an ellipse, so it will have a point of perigee (closest point to Earth) and apogee (farthest point) each month. Today, May 6, it is at apogee and it is 251,318 miles or 404,457 km away from us.

Back on April 20 perigee, it was  229,108 miles or 368,714 km away. In cosmic terms, a difference of 22,210 miles or 35,743 km is not that much and only astronomers take note of the diference. But occasionally the media will decide to write a story about the “biggest Full Moon of the year” or something similar.

There is a nice animation at time.unitarium.com/moon/ that shows the movement of the Moon in your area and illustrates nicely why we see a Full Moon and how it appears when waxing and waning.  You can set it to any date, so I know that on my next October birthday the Moon will be waxing gibbous and approaching full. Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow you to go back before 2000 or I would take a look at what the Moon was up to when I was born.

“Bye Bye Moon” is not meant to be a sequel to Goodnight MoonDid you know that the moon’s distance from Earth varies each month? I didn’t know that until this week, even though I know a lot about our Moon and I write about it at least once a month here.

Our Moon has a rather eccentric orbit and it is moving away from us at about one and a half inches per year. Scientists attribute this to tidal friction with the Earth’s oceans which also slows down how fast the Earth rotates, This lengthens our day by about 1 second every 40000 years.

Okay, it is not something we really will notice or need to worry about, but because scientists can do simulations, they can figure out that four and a half billion years ago when the moon was being formed,  it was only about 15,000 miles from Earth. Now, it is about 238, 831 miles from Earth.

Back then, an Earth day might have been only 5 or 6 hours long and there would be 1400 days in one year. More recently, at least relatively, around 900 million years ago there would be 480 days of about 18 hours each in one Earth year. That would certainly give us a very different lifestyle.

And projecting into the future, we would expect longer days but fewer of them in a year.

Even though we can’t observe these changes within a lifetime, it awesome and full of wonder to me that these changes are happening.

There’s all kinds of fake news these days. There is even fake news about fake news. There has pretty much always been fake news about science, even before we used the word science.

Imagine all those ancient people wondering about lunar and solar eclipses. How many of them did eye damage by staring up at a solar eclipse? Were the gods or a God punishing us by taking away the Sun, and further punishing those who dared to look at it? Did they pray the Sun would return and rejoice when it did return?

In July 2015, an article online claimed that NASA had confirmed that the Earth will experience 15 days of total darkness between November 15 and November 29, 2015. Supposedly, this had not occurred in over one million years.

Of course, it was fake news. The original story seems to have come from a fake news website Newswatch33 (no link to it here which would only increase its search ranking).

The story is evergreen and came back as happening in November 2016 as that date approached the following year, and I saw it this week as a link in some Facebook feeds as an event for November 2017. I suspect the eclipse publicity brought this “November Blackout” story back and social media will give it some life again. Any number of legitimate news, science or debunking websites will tell you it’s completely fake.

And yet some people believe it. Wouldn’t you think that if  NASA knew that the world will remain in complete darkness for 15 day it would have been covered by the real media and not just by your friends on social media?

The “explanation” of this supposed event was that it would occur because of  another astronomical event between Venus and Jupiter. It was explained that during the conjunction between Venus and Jupiter on October 26, light from Venus would cause gases in Jupiter to heat up and those gasses will cause a large amount of hydrogen to be released into space. The gases will reach the Sun and trigger a massive explosion on the surface of the star, heating it to 9,000 degrees Kelvin. The heat of the explosion would then cause the Sun to emit a blue color. The dull blue color will last for 15 days during which the Earth will be thrown into darkness.”

This bullshit jumps off from the term “conjunctions,” which are real but mostly just visual phenomena. Conjunction, in astronomy, is an apparent close meeting or passing of two or more celestial bodies. It is hardly a rare thing. The Moon is in conjunction with the Sun every month at the phase of New Moon, when it moves between the Earth and Sun and the side turned toward the Earth is dark. That two things in the sky look closer together from our point of view on Earth does not mean that they are in fact close together.

Are Jupiter and Venus ever in conjunction? Yes, and when that happens they can still be over 800 million km apart. (For perspective, the Sun and the Earth are about 150 million km apart.)

Jupiter doesn’t affect the Sun. At about 778 million km from the Sun,  Jupiter could swap places with Venus or Jupiter could disappear and the Sun would go on shining normally.

I suppose we Earthlings would like to believe that amazing things can happen. Add to that the pretty poor understanding of basic science (especially of things astronomical) that most people have retained (oh, it was taught to you in school), and these ridiculous stories more easily gain traction. It’s not that fake news didn’t make its way around a town, country or the world a thousand years ago. Surely, it did – but slowly. Since the rise in popularity of the Internet and social media sharing, hoaxes and fake news has proliferated at an incredibly fast rate.

One of the other big fake science stories is the  “Mars Hoax” which pops up every August online since 2003. That year, a historically close approach of the Red Planet to Earth actually did occur. But it has become an annual event online and the closeness has grown so that the headline or link will say that on some particular night in August, Mars will appear as big as the full moon. Totally untrue. That didn’t even happen in 2003. It will never happen.

This year there was a new fake story to start the year saying that on January 4, 2017 it would be “Zero Gravity Day”  when people on Earth would be able to experience weightlessness if they jumped into the air at a specific moment that day. How many people believed that one? I don’t have that number, but I suspect it is not zero.

That particular story sent me back to childhood and listening to the humorist Jean Shepherd on the radio. At least once, he tried to get listeners to jump as high as they could on his command to test a theory that if we removed enough weight from the Earth all at once, we could tip the planet. We knew it was Shep yanking our chain, but I did jump on his command just for the heck of it.

I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago about fake news and I said that, of course, everyone knows that headlines from The Onion or The Borowitz Report are quite deliberately fake and satiric. My friend didn’t know that and didn’t think he had ever seen any of those stories. As someone on Facebook and Twitter, I’m sure he has seen them. I hope he didn’t believe any of them.

Sure, Andy Borowitz is published by The New Yorker, a very legitimate and respected magazine, but his Borowitz Report web page says right at the top “Satire from the Borowitz Report. Not the news.” But you don’t see that tagline disclaimer when someone posts a link to one of his stories. You see “Trump Says Sun Equally to Blame for Blocking the Moon,” and think that since President Trump has said so many ridiculous things lately that it might actually be true. It is getting harder to be ridiculous these days.

The Onion‘s headlines tend to be a bit easier to spot as satire – “‘My Work Here Is Done,’ Smiles Contented Bannon Before Bursting Into Millions Of Spores,” for example – but I’m sure there are people who read them (and pass them on) sometimes as real news.  SAD – as our President might comment about this in a tweet.

 

 

The Moon turns precisely full on June 9, 2017 at 13:10 Universal Time. This the farthest full moon  and so the smallest full moon of the year. I see it described by some unofficial terms such as micro-moon or mini-moon.

This June full moon occurs less than one day after reaching lunar apogee, the moon’s farthest point in its monthly orbit. The near alignment of full moon and lunar apogee team up to give us the farthest and smallest full moon of the year.

What do we mean by a “Moon shadow?”  I think a moon shadow is technically an Earth shadow. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth lines up directly between the sun and the moon, blocking the sun’s rays and casting a shadow on the Moon. As the Moon moves deeper and deeper into the Earth’s shadow, the Moon changes color before your very eyes, turning from gray to an orange or deep shade of red.

I’m not sure I really gave any thought to the term until I heard Cat Stevens’ song “Moonshadow”  back in 1971. When he sings “I’m bein’ followed by a moonshadow, moon shadow, moonshadow. Leapin’ and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow,” I assume it is a shadow cast by a person or object from moonlight.

Ipomoea alba

Ipomoea alba

A plant classified as Ipomoea alba, is also called the tropical white morning-glory, moon flower or moon vine. It is interesting because it is a night-blooming plant. It is native to tropical and subtropical regions of the New World, from northern Argentina north to Mexico and Florida. This is the flower that is shown in the Japanese screen with this post. It certainly would be of interest to cats and humans as it hangs down like a small moon itself in the night.

There is also another plant that is a moon flower. The night-blooming cereus is the common name referring to a large number of flowering cacti that bloom at night. The flowers are short-lived, and some of these species, such as Selenicereus grandiflorus, intriguingly bloom only once a year, for a single night. I would love to see one of these bloom on the night of a Full Moon!

Night-blooming cereus

Night-blooming cereus

Other names for the June Full Moon include the Mead Moon (Medieval), Rose Moon (more common in Europe) and Thunder Moon. The most common name I see used for the June Full Moon is Strawberry Moon. As far as I can find, that name was used by every Algonquin tribe. The relatively short season for harvesting strawberries in June was a good nature sign for this Full Moon.

The Moon becomes full at the same instant worldwide, but we are more locked into clock times.  In Paradelle, it occurs at 9:10 a.m. EDT, but in North America (except for a bit of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands) we won’t be able to see the moon then because it will still be below the horizon.

I will see the Moon at its fullest just before moonset (around sunrise) today. As always, it looked pretty full to the eye last night and again tomorrow.

That bright “star” near tonight’s moon isn’t a star. It is Saturn.

Today – April 26, 2017 – is the first supermoon this year, but there is no Full Moon tonight. Can a New Moon be a supermoon? Yes.

Rather than a full supermoon, this is a new supermoon. It will happen again May 25 (the most “super of the year) and June 24.

As I have said before, a supermoon isn’t an astronomical term but a popular term to mark when the Moon is nearest to the Earth (perigee).

By a commonly accepted definition, to be a supermoon it has to come within 225,027 miles (362,146 km) of Earth. and that happens every few months. Besides the three Super New Moons, there will also be s Super Full Moon in December. After that, the following full moons on January 2 and 31, 2018, count as supermoons, too. Additionally, some will call the full moon on January 31, 2018 a Blue Moon.

Here is the caveat for this celestial event: Since you can’t really see a New Moon, you can’t see a  super one either. The Moon will be in the glare of the sun all day long and will rise and set with the Sun.

You will see the Moon’s impact with higher-than-usual tides since all New and Full Moons create bigger tides and perigee makes them even higher. We sometimes hear them referred to as “spring tides.”

Higher spring tides are one way to “see” the New Supermoon. – Photo: Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey (Wikimedia)

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