Today is the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere! At 0430UT (GMT) this morning, 20 March 2016, the Earth’s axis of rotation went momentarily side-on to the Sun. For the past six months the Earth’s northern hemisphere has be angled away from the Sun, and now we’re angled towards it. Lots more info about equinoxes and equiluxes in a previous post.
As most people take delight in the lengthening daylight hours spare a thought for the amateur astronomers who, in a few weeks time, will be packing away their scopes for the summer, eagerly waiting for the darkening nights later in the year.
Today, Sunday 17 March 2013, it is the Spring Equilux throughout the UK (and possibly elsewhere too*) meaning that there are almost exactly 12 hours between sunrise and sunset.
This date differs from the Spring, or Vernal, Equinox (1102 GMT on Wednesday 20 March 2013) for a variety of reasons, which I explain in a previous post but here is a list of sunrise / sunset times for a variety of towns and cities throughout the UK:
|Town / City||Sunrise||Sunset|
As you can see the time between sunrise and sunset is not exactly 12 hours everywhere but this is the day of the year when that is closest to being true everywhere*. Yesterday the sun rose a couple of minutes later and set a couple of minutes earlier, and tomorrow the sun will rise a couple of minutes earlier and set a couple of minutes later, as the days lengthen.
Also, the reason that sunrise and sunset do not occur at the same time everywhere* is due mainly to the longitude of the town; the further east a town is the earlier it sees the sun in the morning, and the earlier it loses it again at night.
So happy Equilux everyone*!
* interestingly, the equilux does not occur on the same same day for everyone, it depends on your latitude. The closer you are to the equator the earlier the date of your equilux. For example the equilux in most US cities occurred yesterday, 16 March, and in cities near the equator there is never a day with exactly twelve hours between sunrise and sunset! Take Quito, the capital city of Ecuador (latitude 0 degrees 14 minutes south) for instance. The length of day there only ever varies between 12 hours and 6 minutes long and 12 hours and 8 minutes long!
If you’ve been outside in the evening over the past few weeks you’ll have noticed that there are two very bright “stars” close together, following the Sun as they set one after the other in the west. Those two bright dots are not stars at all; they’re planets. The brighter of the two is Venus, which at the moment is below and to the right of the other dot, which is Jupiter.
Tonight they are around ten degrees apart in the sky, but over the next week they’ll get closer and closer, as Venus whizzes and Jupiter crawls round the Sun, until on 15 March they’ll be in conjunction, only 3 degrees apart.
On the days either side of 15 March (say between 08 and 19 March) they’ll be very close too. In fact it’s worth watching this celestial merry-go-round in action every clear evening over the next few weeks as the planets move towards and then away from each other in the sky. Towards the end of March though it’ll become harder to see them both as they disappear into the glare of sunset. If you’ve got clear skies and a good western horizon it’s worth looking out for the thin crescent Moon which will appear between the two planets on the night of 25 March.
Venus, the second planet out from the Sun, is about the same size as the Earth, just a little smaller. It’s the hottest planet in the solar system, with a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide gas (94.6% is CO2, the rest is mainly nitrogen) which traps most of the light from the Sun that shines on it, super-heating the atmosphere to around 460°C (733K). At ground level this thick, hot atmosphere creates a pressure over 90 times greater than sea-level pressure on Earth. High in Venus’ atmosphere float clouds of sulphuric acid, which is all we see when we look at Venus from the Earth.
Seen from here on Earth, the size and shape of Venus in our sky changes as we both orbit the Sun. At its closest to Earth Venus is “only” 38 million km away, and its disk is 66 arc seconds across, while at its furthest from us it’s 260 million km away, and it shrinks to around 10 arc seconds. On top of this, its phase changes from full (when it’s directly opposite the Sun as seen from Earth) to new (when it’s directly between us and the Sun) and back again. Of course when it’s in either of these positions we won’t see it, as it will be in the sky right next to the Sun. We see Venus best when it’s far to the west of the Sun (when it’s seen in the evening) or far to the east (when it’s seen in the morning). The furthest west and east points as seen from Earth are called maximum elongation, and at these points Venus presents a half phase to us.
Due to the reflectivity of its clouds, and its proximity to us, Venus is the brightest planet as seen from Earth. Venus appears brightest in our sky, at around -4.5 magnitudes, when it’s 68 million miles from us and presents a crescent phase.
During the 15 March conjunction Venus will have a brightness of -4.2 magnitudes.
Tonight (actually around 0130 tomorrow morning) the Full Moon will reach its highest point due south, just an hour and a half after the eclipse ends. Despite being at its highest in the sky, you’ll still struggle to see it, as it is very low down. In fact the Full Moon nearest the Summer Solstice is the lowest Full Moon of the Year.
First, let’s begin with the definition of “Full Moon”. A Full Moon occurs when the Moon is diametrically opposite the Sun, as seen from the Earth. In this configuration, the entire lit hemisphere of the Moon’s surface is visible from Earth, which is what makes it “Full”. There is an actual instant of the exactly Full Moon, that is the exact instant that the Moon is directly opposite the Sun. Therefore when you see timings listed for the Full Moon they will usually include the exact time (hh:mm) that the Moon is 180° round from the Sun (we call this point opposition).
Here’s a list of the times of all Full Moons between June 2011 and June 2012:
|Month||Date of Full Moon
||Time of Full Moon (UT)
|June 2011||15 June||2014*|
|July 2011||15 July||0640*|
|August 2011||13 August||1857*|
|September 2011||12 September||0927*|
|October 2011||12 October||0206*|
|November 2011||10 November||2016|
|December 2011||10 December||1436|
|January 2012||09 January||0730|
|February 2012||07 February||2154|
|March 2012||08 March||0939|
|April 2012||06 April||1919*|
|May 2012||06 May||0335*|
|June 2012||04 June||1112*|
* UK observers should add on one hour for BST
As you can see from this table, the instant of the Full Moon can occur at any time of day, even in the daytime when the Moon is below the horizon. So most often when we see a “Full Moon” in the sky it is not exactly full, it is a little bit less than full, being a few hours ahead or behind the instant of the Full Moon. I’ll refer to this with “” marks, to distinguish this from the instant of the Full Moon (they look virtually identical in the sky).
The Moon rises and sets, like the Sun does, rising towards the east and setting towards the west, reaching its highest point due south around midnight (although not exactly at midnight, just like the Sun does not usually reach its highest point exactly at noon). And like with the Sun the maximum distance above the horizon of the “Full Moon” varies over the year.
The Sun is at its highest due south around noon on the Summer Solstice (20 or 21 June) and at its lowest due south around noon on the Winter Solstice (21 or 22 Dec) (of course the Sun is often lower than this, as it rises and sets, but we’re talking here about the lowest high point at mid-day, i.e. the day of the year in which, when the Sun is at its highest point that day, that height is lowest…)
And because Full Moons occur when the Moon is directly opposite the Sun, you can imagine the Moon and Sun as sitting on either sides of a celestial see-saw: on the day when the Sun is highest in the middle of the day (in Summer), the Moon is at its lowest high point at midnight; and on the day when the Sun is at its lowest high point in the middle of the day (in Winter), the Moon is at its highest high point at midnight.
This means, in practical terms, that Summer “Full Moons” are always very low on the horizon, while Winter “Full Moons” can be very high overhead.
Here’s a table of the altitude of the “Full Moon” when due south. Remember the times in this table don’t match the exact time of the Full Moon, but instead have been chosen as the closest in time to that instant, and so have be labelled “Full Moon” (in quotes).
Full Moon (UT)
“Full Moon” due S
instant of Full Moon
|Altitude due S
|June 2011||15 June||2014*||0127BST 16 June 2011||+4h13m||10° 05′|
|July 2011||15 July||0640*||0012BST 15 July 2011||-7h28m||10° 24′|
|August 2011||13 August||1857*||0126BST 14 August 2011||+5h27m||19° 19′|
|September 2011||12 September||0927*||0049BST 12 September 2011||-9h38m||31° 49′|
|October 2011||12 October||0206*||0053BST 12 October 2011||-1h13m||44° 16′|
|November 2011||10 November||2016||0005GMT 11 November 2011||-3h49m||53° 24′|
|December 2011||10 December||1436||0030GMT 11 December 2011||+9h54m||56° 03′|
|January 2012||09 January||0730||0006GMT 09 January 2012||-7h24m||53° 36′|
|February 2012||07 February||2154||0031GMT 08 February 2012||+2h37m||43° 47′|
|March 2012||08 March||0939||0000GMT 08 March 2012||-9h39m||35° 37′|
|April 2012||06 April||1919*||0145BST 07 April 2012||+5h26m||21° 45′|
|May 2012||06 May||0335*||0102BST 06 May 2012||-3h33m||15° 20′|
|June 2012||04 June||1112*||0047BST 04 June 2012||-11h25m||11° 49′|
* UK observers should add on one hour for BST
** The altitude here is based on my observing location in Glasgow, Scotland. You can find out how to work out how high these altitudes are here.
As you can see from this table, the highest “Full Moon” due S this year occurs at 0030 on 11 December 2011, when the Moon will be over 56° above the southern horizon (approximately the height of the midsummer mid-day Sun which culminates at 57°34′).
Compare this to the “Full Moon” this month, just after the eclipse, in the morning of 16 June, when the Moon barely grazes 10° above the horizon, and you can see just how low the midsummer Full Moon can be.
In fact the closeness of summer “Full Moons” to the horizon means that this is an ideal time of year to try and observe the Moon Illusion.
UPDATE: Here’s a very cool speeded up video of the Moon cycling through its phases, as see by the LRO spacecraft: