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Friday, July 23, 2021

Ready For Supermoon Season 2020?

You may have noticed media outlets saying that we are entering a “supermoon season,” with three supermoons in a row, in March, April, and May, The first one—the Super Worm Moon—rises on March 8/9. What does it mean to be a supermoon? And why don’t we use this term in The Old Farmer’s Almanac? Here are the facts.

There will be three supermoons in a row—March 9, April 8, and May 7. Let’s focus on the first one and then talk more about the term “supermoon.”

Super Worm Moon in the March Sky

On March 9, the Moon turns full 1:48 P.M. Eastern Standard Time (10:48 A.M. Pacific Time). Since this is mid-day, look up the night prior (March 8) or the night of March 9 and the Moon will appear full both evenings.

It’s a Super Moon because the Moon turns full just as it reaches the point in its orbit closest to the Earth. This may make the Moon look bigger and brighter, especially during moonrise and moonset.

See all about the Full Worm Moon of March.

This Term “Supermoon”

If you’re a longtime reader of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, you may notice that the pages of the Almanac make no mention of the term, “supermoon.” Nor do any of the world’s astronomical publications. What gives?

Sooner or later we should confront this, and it might as well be now.

The story is simple.

First, the term for the “point at which it is nearest Earth each month” is called its perigee. It’s been called perigee for centuries.

Astronomy publications offered monthly tables showing when the Moon would be closest (called “perigee”) or farthest (“apogee”) were generally ignored except by fishermen and others who cared about the tides.

But when a few years ago someone created the term “supermoon” as a synonym for lunar perigee, it sufficiently caught on to make some media outlets say things like, “Go out Saturday night and see the super moon!”

Second, there really isn’t something different to see. It’s not enough of a variation to be noticeable.

The Moon’s elliptical orbit makes it continually alter its distance from us. Since its out-of-round orbit changes shape depending on whether its long axis is aimed toward the Sun on any particular day, the Moon’s nearpoint itself varies.

Even professional astronomers cannot look at the Moon and tell whether it’s closer or farther from us than average. So a lunar “close approach” is visually a non-event.

To the Almanac editors, anything that encourages folk to gaze at the Moon and the stars is a positive thing!

But does the Supermoon refer to something extraordinary, either in appearance or in rarity? If not, then it’s also hype by definition.

Learn more about “What is a Supermoon?” from NASA.

A Closer Look

Let’s look more closely. In order of nearness, the six closest Full Moons of 2020 are the ones in April, October, March, November, September, and May, with the Full Moon of April just three miles closer than the one in October.

The Full Moon of May, distance-wise, earns sixth place out of the year’s 13 Full Moons. It’s right in the middle. So why would anyone call that a “Supermoon?”  Yet there it is, the third member in this supposed “series.”

You can see why the world’s astrophysicists – and the pages of the Almanac – mainly ignore this whole business. We regard it as a hyped-up term wrapped around sloppy science, serving little purpose for those who love and follow the nightly heavens, but having the potential to disappoint those who look up and then see nothing out of the ordinary.

And now that we’ve explained it, you’ll know why it’s not in The Old Farmer’s Almanac itself.

We live in a time when there are truly extraordinary objects and visual events to enlighten the public about. A total solar eclipse. A good auroral display. Even the half Moon through any cheap telescope. Those are visual examples of things that truly appear “super.”

Conceptual examples include the scale of space, the rotation of our galaxy, a rare planet conjunction like the one this coming December 21, the fact that ten thousand billion neutrinos fly through each of our eyes every second. Too much else is out there!

Tell me: What do you think, readers?

Source: Farmer's Almanac - Amazing Sky

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