Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Dark" Supermoon Tomorrow: New Moon Gets Closest to Earth

Tomorrow night the new moon will make a close approach to Earth, giving rise to the second supermoon of the year—but this one will have the power of invisibility.

Because the moon's orbit is egg shaped, there are times in the roughly monthlong lunar cycle when the moon is at perigee—its closest distance to Earth—or at apogee, its farthest distance from Earth.

"A supermoon occurs when the moon is at perigee and it's in either a full or new phase," said Raminder Singh Samra, an astronomer at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, Canada.

In March sky-watchers were treated to a full moon at perigee, which made for the biggest full moon seen in 18 years.

A new moon happens when the lunar orb positions itself between Earth and the sun, so that the side of the moon that faces Earth is unlighted.

"The upcoming moon on September 27, 2011, is set to be at perigee and at the new phase," Samra said, "so we won't be able to witness the event, as the moon and sun will be in the same region of the sky" and the lunar disk will be entirely dark.

Supermoon to Affect Earth's Tides?

Because the size of the moon's orbit also varies slightly, each perigee is not always the same distance from Earth.

When at perigee, the moon is about 18,640 miles (30,000 kilometers) closer to Earth than its average distance of roughly 240,000 miles (385,000 kilometers). When perigee occurs during a full moon, the lunar disk can appear about 14 percent bigger in the sky, Samra said.

Tuesday's dark supermoon will be just 222,175 miles (357,557 kilometers) away from Earth.

Some people have speculated that this lunar proximity can have unusual gravitational effects on Earth, triggering dramatic events such as earthquakes.

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