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Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

Chart the changing faces of the Moon

Posted on June 17 2009 at 3:01:33 0 comments

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

Imagine a vehicle weighing two thousand tons, burning fuel at the rate of fifteen tons a second! No, not the four-wheel drive sort that seems compulsory for taking the kids to school nowadays – this was the Saturn Five that took men to the Moon to make the first landing 40 years ago this month.

So where did Neil Armstrong (eventually) land on July 20, 1969? Look at the Moon when it is close to full; this month from about the 4th, when it is in Libra, the barristers’ sign, to about the 9th, when it has moved into Sagittarius.

If you can imagine the “face”, the landing site is the tear stain below its left eye; actually the Sea of Tranquillity, one of the darkest bits of this side of the Moon. This full Moon will be very low in the sky, when it is usually thought to look bigger.

Have a look for yourself, or better still, find an object which, when held at arm’s length just covers the disc of the Moon. Anything will do – a coin, a pebble, a vegetable – but it must fit perfectly; then keep it safe to try it again in about six months when the Moon is high in the sky.

Also, when it is this low, it’s a different colour to when it is high; compare it to the really bright, silvery full Moons of the winter months. 

I find it fascinating to observe the Moon’s changing shape on a daily basis, especially the challenge of finding the first thin crescent after new Moon, in the short time between sunset and the Moon setting; this month around the 23rd. Or a day or two later, near first quarter, when the dark portion is illuminated by “Earthshine”. 

This is when, I think, the Moon looks the most wonderful. At half Moon, I think it really looks like a sphere, more so than at any other phase and, of course, it‘s visible in the daytime. This is the time to really look to see if you can spot any features such as the Sea of Crisis, a very circular “sea” on the upper right hand edge.

Full Moon is usually detested by astronomers because it washes out a lot of the sky and is not good for observing the Moon through a telescope, but it is interesting to notice how much light it casts on the Earth. See if you can read by its light or see colours, remembering that the surface of the Moon is only about as bright as a dark road surface.

After full, the Moon is rising too late for most people to see during darkness but you can see it during the day, shrinking back to a crescent. In the early hours of July 22, there will be a total eclipse of the Sun, when the Moon passes in front it, completely blocking its light.

Unfortunately, it won’t be visible from Alvechurch, but isn’t it an amazing cosmic coincidence that the Moon and the Sun are exactly the same size as seen from Earth? Or is it more than just coincidence?


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