Sunday, 20 January 2019 19:51

Howl at the moon — and watch it disappear

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Howl at the moon — and watch it disappear Image courtesy of NASA

The night of Sunday, Jan. 20 and into the early morning of Monday, Jan. 21 is of particular excitement for anyone interested in astronomy.  

Specifically, not one, not two, not three, but a total of four relatively unique lunar occurrences will all coincide.

The first full moon of 2019 will be observable for most of the evening, appearing at its brightest (if you could see it at that point) at approximately 12:16 a.m. EST on Monday, Jan. 21. (While all full moons have been given names, such monikers have differed between cultures and/or over the centuries. The term “Wolf Moon” is applied to this particular full moon, at least in North America and parts of Europe. Such nomenclature is traced back to Native Americans who noted that wolves are entering into their mating season at this time of year and thus tend to be a bit more boisterous than usual.)

Second, given that the moon is also at its closest point to the Earth tonight, lunar luminescence will be at its greatest magnitude, thus yielding a “super” full-moon effect. That is, the moon will appear significantly larger than usual, given that it is significantly closer to Earth.

There is also a “blood moon” title bestowed upon tonight’s lunar phase. A latent effect of close proximity between the Earth and the moon will be a reddish appearance of the moon. This occurs as a function of the abnormal angle of sunlight from which the moon gets its illumination.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the evening will be the progression of the phases of a total lunar eclipse of this one and only super full blood moon of 2019.  From the vantage point of North Carolina, the initial noticeable differences will begin at approximately 10:36 p.m. and progress through the point of maximum eclipse at 12:12 a.m., followed by a “symmetrical” reversal of the phases until the “normal” full moon reestablishes itself at 1:51 a.m.

Thus, tonight presents a relatively rare opportunity to witness four different facets of lunar phases. It should be noted that the coinciding occurrence of a super full blood moon and a total lunar eclipse happens only 28 times in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, for those of you who miss out on tonight’s viewing, your next opportunity (in the eastern part of North America) to witness a similar event won’t occur until May 16, 2022.