Blue Moons, Blood Moons, and Super Moons: Separating Fact from Fiction

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[Total lunar eclipse. Courtesy NASA]

Prepare to be inundated with lunacy this week, thanks to three interesting configurations of our nearest celestial neighbor. Wednesday the 31st is the second full moon of January, making it the so-called “blue moon” (as in “once in  a blue moon”). But just how rare is a blue moon? Not very, if you consider that the time between two consecutive full moons is about 29.5 days, and all months except February have more than 29.5 days in them. For example, March 2018 also has two full moons.

The “blood moon” descriptor refers to a total lunar eclipse. When the sun, earth, and moon line up in that order in a straight line, the earth casts a shadow on the otherwise full moon. Because the red portion of sunlight refracts or bends through our atmosphere, the full moon doesn’t turn black but a coppery or bloody red. While it can be a startling sight to those who aren’t expecting it (I remember being scared to death as a child when I saw a lunar eclipse during a late night potty break), there is nothing bloody or gruesome about the event. On average one or two total lunar eclipses occur each calendar year. The January 31 total lunar eclipse will not be visible from here in Connecticut, as the moon will be setting as the eclipse begins. Our next chance to see a “blood moon” will be January 21, 2019.

Well, what about the so-called “super moon?” This refers to the full moon looking larger than average. Because the moon’s orbit around the earth is not a perfect circle, when the moon is at its closest point to earth (called the perigee) it looks 14% larger than when it is at its farthest point (called apogee). When this happens at the time of full moon, you might notice that the moon looks a little bit brighter than average. There is no scientific definition of a super moon (because it’s not really something that scientists care about, to be honest), but one running definition on the internet is that it is when the full moon occurs within a few days of perigee. So how rare is this? Considering that the first full moon of January 2018 (which occurred on New Year’s Day) was also a “super moon,” you have your answer.

Putting all three of predictable, cyclical configurations together into one event, however, is just a tad more rare. The last “blue-blood-super moon” was probably in 1866 (again, depending on your definition of “super moon”). So if you want to take this opportunity to go outside and gawk at dear old Luna, please be my guest. Just don’t howl, because you might be mistaken for a super blue werewolf!

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CCSU Astronomy Students Shine in Free Public Observing Sessions

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[Former AST 278 student Vanessa Swenton running the 10 inch Newtonian during a public observing session]

Each Fall semester, the students in AST 278 Observational Astronomy get an opportunity to shine. The capstone project of the course is for the students to plan, publicize, and carry out a series of four consecutive nights of free public observing sessions.

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[Poster for the 2017 observing sessions. Designed by current AST 278 student Hayley Comstock]

This year’s class creatively adopted a Van Gogh theme, using the slogan “Gogh and experience a Starry Night at CCSU.” On December 3-6 from 7-8:30 PM, if the skies are clear, the 15 students will run four different telescopes and two sets of mounted binoculars, each instrument observing a different double star, star cluster, or galaxy. The students have spent a great deal of time preparing for this event, practicing how to operate the instrument they are assigned to and finding their object, as well as researching information about the instrument and object (including mythology and “fun facts”). But the success of this event really depends on you, the general public, to attend and allow these students to prove what they can do. I hope you will join us – I know you will be as proud of our CCSU astronomy students as I am.

For more information, including directions, visit the Copernican Observatory and Planetarium website.

Gogh and Experience a Starry Night at CCSU

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You’ve seen the famous painting, now experience the real thing by viewing galaxies, star clusters, double stars and more through a variety of telescopes and mounted binoculars at Central Connecticut State University. On December 3-6 from 7:00 – 8:30 PM, if the skies are clear, join us for free public observing sessions hosted by CCSU astronomy students. Bring along your own binoculars to learn how to use them to paint a picture of the universe from your own backyard. We promise it will make an impression on you! For more information, visit www.ccsu.edu/astronomy or call 860-832-2938.

 

Explore the Cosmos at CCSU Family Day

CCSU Family Day is Saturday, October 7, and the Copernican Observatory and Planetarium and Geology & Planetary Science Club have free activities that are out of this world! Planetarium shows run at 11:30 AM and 2 PM, and join us in the library-side foyer of Copernicus Hall for free geology and astronomy activities suitable for children of all ages. Between 11 AM – 2 PM can construct a starfinder or a model of Saturn to take home, examine rocks and minerals from Connecticut, try your hand at making craters, touch real meteorites and fossils,  and observe sunspots (weather permitting).

What to do with those eclipse glasses now

[NASA eclipse glasses donated to the Burlington Library by NASA Solar System Ambassador Kris Larsen; empty box that once house the 1000 pairs of eclipse glasses Kris Larsen bought and donated to the public for the eclipse]

Now that the Great American Eclipse is over, what do you do with those eclipse glasses? Given the pains many of you went through to get them, it seems a shame to just discard them. You can put them in a safe place until the April 8, 2024 eclipse (which will be 90% partial in Connecticut, and total in parts of New England and New York state). If you do this, you should examine them for any holes or defects BEFORE the 2024 eclipse (in case you need to get new pairs). You can always use them to view large sunspot groups. Only large groups are seen with just eclipse glasses and the eye, so it will not be an everyday event. To monitor sunspot activity, I recommend the Spaceweather website.

If you want to pass on to someone else the excitement you felt at observing the eclipse, you can donate your glasses (if they are in good condition) to Astronomers Without Borders, who will redistribute them to schools in South America for the next two total solar eclipses. Please follow the directions on their website.

Of course, you might just hang on to them as a memento!

Upcoming Free Eclipse Talks

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[Partial phase of a solar eclipse viewed in Egypt in 2006]

If you haven’t attended one of Dr. Larsen’s free public lectures on the upcoming solar eclipse you still have several chances! Please contact the host institutions directly to reserve your spots:

Wallingford Public Library: August 9, 7 PM

Bristol Public Library: August 14, 6:30 PM

CT Audubon Society (Glastonbury): August 15, 6:30 PM