Space

Here’s why you don’t want to miss tonight’s ‘super snow moon’

You’re not hallucinating: Yes, the Moon looks brighter than normal, and yes, it looks bigger too.

But Tuesday evening will bring the real show: what astronomers at NASA call a “perigean” moon, or “supermoon”. The event will coincide with a full moon that’s often referred to as a “snow moon” or “hunger moon”.

It’s not an unusual event in the context of our human existence on Earth – 12 to 14 full moons occur each year, and about one-fourth of these are larger and brighter than normal, hence the term “supermoon”.

But that doesn’t make this full moon any less fantastic to look at on a crisp winter evening, especially ahead of humanity’s 50th anniversary of landing men on the Moon, the NASA scientist Mitzi Adams said in a recent blog post.

“As NASA and its commercial and international partners plan to return the Moon over the next decade with a long-term continued presence, the list of Moon walkers will surely include women, as well,” Adams said.

Why the ‘super snow moon’ will be so big and so bright

supermoon vs minimoon(NASA/JPL-Caltech)

February’s full moon is sometimes referred to by its Native American or traditional name, the “snow moon”. That’s because it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, when snow often blankets the ground.

This February, the snow moon also happens to be a supermoon.

A supermoon (a term that some astronomers don’t care for) happens because the Moon’s distance from Earth varies during its orbit around our planet. That orbit is not perfectly circular – it has a slightly elliptical or oval shape – leading to the variation.

On average, the Moon is 238,856 miles (384,400 kilometres) from Earth. But it can creep as close as roughly 221,500 miles (356,500 kilometres) and as far as 252,700 miles (406,700 kilometres). That’s a minimum-maximum difference of 31,200 miles (50,200 kilometres).

(These distances are calculated based on laser-ranging measurements that use reflectors left on the Moon’s surface by Apollo astronauts.)

Supermoons occur when we get a full moon near or at the point when the Moon’s orbit is closest to Earth, also called the perigee of its orbit. For this reason, supermoons are also known as perigee or perigean moons, though the full technical term is “perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system.”

Compared with a full moon at apogee – its farthest point in orbit around Earth, when “micromoons” occur – a supermoon looks about 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter.

Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with The Virtual Telescope Project, told Business Insider that this month’s supermoon “will appear about 7 percent bigger and a bit brighter” than an average full moon.

“These are not really obvious variations, but they add charm to the event, a precious opportunity to admire our natural satellite in the night sky context, an increasingly overlooked and forgotten landscape,” Masi, who is hosting a live webcast of the supermoon, wrote in an email.

There’s no universally agreed-upon definition of a supermoon. However, one common description is any full moon that happens within about 90 percent of perigee, or within roughly 223,000 miles (359,000 kilometres) of Earth.

February’s “super snow moon” will occur six hours after a perigee distance of 221,681 miles (356,800 kilometres), according to NASA. That would make it not only the second of three supermoons in a row, but the largest and brightest full moon of the year. (The closer the moon is to Earth, the bigger it will appear and the more sunlight it can reflect.)

That’s because this distance is 362 miles (583 kilometres) closer than the supermoon we saw on January 21, according to Adams. It will also be about 1,627 miles (2,618 kilometre) closer than the next supermoon, on March 19.

The last time Earth saw three supermoons for three full moons in a row was in early 2018.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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