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Supermoon Nonsense Redux: November 2016

November 9, 2016 2 comments

There seems to be a growing excitement about the “Supermoon” that is due to occur on 14 November 2016, when the Moon will be at its closest to Earth in this orbit, and closer than it has been at any time since 1948.

Sure the full moon will look big and bright this Sunday evening/Monday morning, but no more so than normal. It’ll be 14% larger and 30% brighter but your eyes and brain won’t see any difference from a normal full moon. It’s still worth a look – the moon is always a beautiful thing to see – but if you notice any difference in size or brightness, it’ll be your brain playing tricks on you. Maybe the power of suggestion or the Moon Illusion.

Read on to find out why it’s not any more super than normal…

Moon

The Moon orbits the Earth in an elliptical orbit, i.e. it is not perfectly circular, and so in each orbit there is a closest approach, called “perigee” and a furthest approach, called “apogee”.

At this month’s perigee the Moon will be 356,511km away from Earth. Closer than normal, sure but only 66km closer than the “Supermoon” that began all the hype back in 2011, so not that much closer.

Let’s start by comparing it to the Moon’s average distance from the Earth, which is ~385,000km. This perigee will be ~8% closer to the Earth than average. OK, that’s a bit closer, but not significantly so.

What about comparing it to the Moon’s average perigee distance, which is ~364,000km. So this “Supermoon” will be ~2% closer to the Earth than it is most months at perigee. Wow!

The brilliant XKCD sums up the Supermoon hype nicely

The brilliant XKCD sums up the Supermoon hype nicely

So what will this mean to you? Nothing at all. The Moon will be 14% bigger in the sky, but your eye won’t really be able to tell the difference. It will also be 30% percent brighter, but your eye will compensate for this too, so altogether this “Supermoon” will look exactly the same as it always does when it’s full.

As to all of those soothsayers claiming that there will be earthquakes and tidal waves. There very well might be, but they’ll be nothing at all to do with the Moon.

Post Script

Supermoons aren’t all that rare. In fact they occur once every 13.5 months.

Thanks to Steve Bell at the UK Hydrographic Office for providing the calculations below:

The Moon orbits the Earth once every 27.321 days (called the sidereal period), but as the Earth is orbiting the Sun at the same time, the Moon’s phases appear to repeat every 29.530 days (called the synodic period, which is the time we use to derive the month).

The Moon’s orbit is elliptical (a squashed circle) and so you would expect a perigee once every 27.321 days. However the elliptical path around which the Moon orbits the Earth precesses (that is it is not fixed with the perigee occurring at the same part of each orbit; the place where perigee occurs moves, or precesses) with a period of 8.8504 years, so that perigee doesn’t occur once every 27.321 days but rather once every 27.554 days (called the anomalistic period).

To calculate the frequency of perigee full moons (“Supermoons”) you need to use the equation:

1/P(perigee&full) = 1/P(perigee) – 1/P(full)

where P(perigee) is the anomalistic period = 27.554 days, and
where P(full) is the synodic period = 29.530 days

and when you put those figures in you find that a full moon will occur at perigee once every 411.776 days (i.e. P(perigee&full)=411.776), or just less than once per year.

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Lunar Eclipse 28 September 2015: The Blood Supermoon

September 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Stargazers in the UK are ideally placed to see a rare astronomical event next week, a Total Lunar Eclipse. While not as dramatic as a Total Solar Eclipse, a lunar eclipse is well worth watching for, as the Moon turns deep red at totality.

Lunar_eclipse_April_15_2014_California_Alfredo_Garcia_Jr1

A Blood-red Lunar Eclipse

Unlike a Total Solar Eclipse, where totality lasts only a few minutes, a total eclipse of the Moon last several hours. In the morning hours of Monday 28 September the lunar eclipse begins at 0111BST and ends at 0622BST as the Moon sets. During the very early and late hours of the lunar eclipse you will see part of the full Moon’s disk darken, but it’s only when the Moon enters totality that it will turn red. This dramatic event will happen between 0311 and 0423BST.

This month’s lunar eclipse is made even rarer by the fact that the full Moon on 28 Sep is what’s called a Supermoon. This means that the Moon is closer than normal to Earth, and will appear slightly larger and brighter in the sky. But don’t believe the hype: it will be only a few % closer and so your eye will not be able to detect the difference between this Supermoon and any other Full Moon – except this time it’ll be blood red due to the eclipse! (The Moon may actually look bigger to you if you catch it low on the horizon, but that’s due to the Moon Illusion).

The brilliant XKCD sums up the Supermoon hype nicely

The brilliant XKCD sums up the Supermoon hype nicely

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon, in its orbit around the Earth, passes into the Earth’s shadow, as cast by the Sun. You might imagine that this would happen once every lunar orbit, or once a month. That it does not is due to the fact that the Moon’s orbit around the Earth is tilted by around 5 degrees compared with the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. So in most orbits the Moon passes above or below the Earth’s shadow.

However, once in a while (there are at least two lunar eclipses each year) the orbital planes will align so that the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow, sometimes just grazing it, in which case we get a partial lunar eclipse, and at other times passing right through the shadow, when we get a total lunar eclipse.

The Earth’s shadow has two distinct regions, forming two concentric cones: the inner, darker, part of the shadow is called the umbra, and objects within this part of the shadow receive no direct light from the Sun. The outer, lighter, part of the shadow is called the penumbra, and objects within this part of the shadow can receive direct light from the Sun, but part of the Sun’s disk will be obscured by the Earth, and so less light than normal falls on the object.

There are several distinct phases of a lunar eclipse, as the Moon travels through the penumbra and umbra. For this lunar eclipse the total time during which the Moon is at least partially in the Earth’s shadow is 5 hours 11 minutes, and 72 minutes of this is spent entirely within the umbra, i.e. in total eclipse.

lunareclipse28sep

These phases are given the names: P1, the time when the Moon’s disk enter the penumbra; U1, the time when the Moon’s disk enters the umbra; U2, the time when the entirety of the Moon’s disk is within the umbra; U3, the last time when the entirety of the Moon’s disk is within the umbra; U4, the last time when part of the Moon’s disk is within the umbra; and P4, the last time when part of the Moon’s disk is within the penumbra.

The UK is ideally placed to view this total lunar eclipse, although you will have to stay up very late, or get up very early. The Moon is in the sky for the entirety of the eclipse. Observers in western Europe, NW Africa, E North America, and South America will all see the full eclipse from beginning to end.

eclipse28sep2

A detailed information sheet for this eclipse (and others) is available (pdf) on the NASA Eclipse website.

The Moon Illusion

March 9, 2011 6 comments

"Wow, the Moon's even bigger than that tree"

You’ve probably all seen it before, a huge Full Moon sitting on the horizon. Time and again I have had people ask me why the Moon is so much bigger some times than others, and the answer is: it isn’t, really.

The Moon orbits the Earth in an elliptical orbit, meaning that it is not always the same distance from the Earth. The closest the Moon ever gets to Earth (called perigee) is 364,000km, and the furthest is ever gets (apogee) is around 406,000km (these figures vary a bit).

So the percentage difference in distance between the average perigee and the average apogee is ~10%. That is, if the Full Moon occurs at perigee it can be up to 10% closer (and therefore larger) than if it occurred at apogee.

This is quite a significant difference, and so it is worth pointing out that the Moon does appear to be different sizes at different times throughout the year.

But that’s NOT what causes the Moon to look huge on the horizon. Such a measly 10% difference in size cannot account for the fact that people describe the Moon as “huge” when they see it low on the horizon.

What’s really causing the Moon to look huge on such occasions is the circuitry in your brain. It’s an optical illusion, so well known that it has its own name: the Moon Illusion.

If you measure the angular size of the Full Moon in the sky it varies between 36 arc minutes (0.6 degrees) at perigee, and 30 arc minutes (0.5 degrees) at apogee, but this difference will occur within a number of lunar orbits (months), not over the course of the night as the Moon rises. In fact if you measure the angular size of the Full Moon just after it rises, when it’s near the horizon, and then again hours later once it’s high in the sky, these two numbers are identical: it doesn’t change size at all.

So why does your brain think it has? There’s no clear consensus on this, but the two most reasonable explanations are as follows:

1. When the Moon is low on the horizon there are lots of objects (hills, houses, trees etc) against which you can compare its size. When it’s high in the sky it’s there in isolation. This might create something akin to the Ebbinghaus Illusion, where identically sized objects appear to be different sizes when placed in different surroundings.

Ebbinghaus Illusion

Ebbinghaus Illusion - the two orange circles are exactly the same size

2. When seen against nearer foreground objects which we know to be far away from us, our brain thinks something like this: “wow, that Moon is even further than those trees, and they’re really far away. And despite how far away it is, it still looks pretty big. That must mean the Moon is huge!”.

These two factors combine to fool our brains into “seeing” a larger Moon when it’s near the horizon compared with when its overhead, even when our eyes – and our instruments – see it as exactly the same size.

Supermoon Nonsense

March 9, 2011 30 comments

There seems to be a growing excitement about the “Supermoon” that is due to occur on 19 March 2011, when the Moon will be at its closest to Earth in this orbit, and closer than it has been at any time since 1992.

Moon

Moon – not Super

The Moon orbits the Earth in an elliptical orbit, i.e. it is not perfectly circular, and so in each orbit there is a closest approach, called “perigee” and a furthest approach, called “apogee”.

At this month’s perigee the Moon will be 356,577km away from Earth, and will indeed be at its closest in almost 20 years [This is WRONG: see Update 2 below!). But how close is it compared with other perigees?

Let’s start by comparing it to the Moon’s average distance from the Earth, which is ~385,000km. This perigee will be ~8% closer to the Earth than average. OK, that’s a bit closer, but not significantly so.

What about comparing it to the Moon’s average perigee distance, which is ~364,000km. So this “Supermoon” will be ~2% closer to the Earth than it is most months at perigee. Wow!

So what will this mean to you? Nothing at all. The Moon will be a few percent bigger in the sky, but your eye won’t really be able to tell the difference. It will also be a few percent brighter, but your eye will compensate for this too, so altogether this “Supermoon” will look exactly the same as it always does when it’s full.

As to all of those soothsayers claiming that there will be earthquakes and tidal waves. There very well might be, but they’ll be nothing at all to do with the Moon.

UPDATE: I predict that lots of people will report having seen a huge Moon on or around 19 March

UPDATE 2: Thanks to “justcurious” for the comment that inspired this calculation, and to Steve Bell at the UK Hydrographic Office for providing the calculations below:

The Moon orbits the Earth once every 27.321 days (called the sidereal period), but as the Earth is orbiting the Sun at the same time, the Moon’s phases appear to repeat every 29.530 days (called the synodic period, which is the time we use to derive the month).

So the first part of the answer is: the Moon is full every 29.530 days.

The Moon’s orbit is elliptical (a squashed circle) and so you would expect a perigee once every 27.321 days. However the elliptical path around which the Moon orbits the Earth precesses (that is it is not fixed with the perigee occuring at the same part of each orbit; the place where perigee occurs moves, or pressesses) with a period of 8.8504 years, so that perigee doesn’t occur once every 27.321 days but rather once every 27.554 days (called the anomalistic period).

To calculate the frequency of perigee full Moons you need to use the equation:

1/P(perigee&full) = 1/P(perigee) – 1/P(full)

where P(perigee) is the anomalistic period = 27.554 days, and
where P(full) is the synodic period = 29.530 days

and when you put those figures in you find that a full Moon will occur at perigee once every 411.776 days (i.e. P(perigee&full)=411.776, or just less than once per year.

All the articles that cite this as the closest full Moon in 18.6 years are wrong; there was a full Moon at perigee 411.784 days ago, on Feb 28th 2010 when the full Moon occurred at 1700UT and perigee occurred just 19 hours before at 2200UT on Feb 27th 2010.

The next so-called Supermoon will occur on May 6th 2012, when the full Moon will occur at 0400UT, with perigee at the same time.

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