Slender Moons


| August/September 1998

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    A crescent moon and Venus at dawn over San Diego.
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    Palm trees weather a 1993 Sarasota, Florida, storm.
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    A crescent moon and Venus at dawn over San Diego.
    Astronaut Guion Bluford, Jr.

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Making time for a new year.

The summer comes to an end and the autumn begins. It's not only time to go back to school, begin the harvest, and watch the migrations of birds. It's also time to Celebrate a Jewish New Year, look for slender Moons and Jupiter at its best, and stand alert for the threat of the most formidable type of hurricanes.

An Assortment of Astro-Sights

Around autumn equinox is not a good time to try to see the Moon as soon as possible after New Moon. This evening crescent is slung very low (in horizon haze and glow) off to the side of the setting Sun at this time of year (at least from our highly populated middle northern latitudes of Earth). The opposite is true of the Moon and planets in the dawns of August through October: their separation from the Sun is almost vertical, almost as steeply above where the Sun is going to rise as possible.

This latter fact is good news for anyone who wants to enjoy the conjunctions of Venus and Mars, and of Venus, Mercury, and the star Regulus this August and September. It also holds out a slight possibility of at least eastern U.S. observers seeing a wondrously slender lunar crescent low in the east only about 15 hours before New Moon at dawn on August 21st.

The opposite of New Moon is Full Moon. Full Moon is opposite (though rarely exactly opposite) the Sun in the sky. In other words, Full Moon rises around sunset, is highest around the middle of the night, and sets around sunrise. If the Moon is opposite the Sun in the sky, it will be pointing the same side of itself towards both Earth and Sun. And that means all of the Moon pointed at us will be sunlit: fully lit—Full.

Notice I said above that the Full Moon is rarely exactly opposite the Sun in our sky. If this were not true, there would be a lunar eclipse at every Full Moon. Most months, the Moon passes a little above (north of) or a little below (south of) Earth's shadow and isn't eclipsed. Other times all of it goes into Earth's "umbra," or dark central shadow, and there is a total lunar eclipse. Sometimes only part of the Moon enters the umbra and we see a partial eclipse. There is also what we call a "penumbral lunar eclipse."

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