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News / Life / Clark County Life

Cold Moon rising: If skies are clear, Earth’s satellite will shine with a magical glow around Christmas

Other planets, meteors will be visible, too

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 12, 2023, 6:03am
5 Photos
Venus is about the same size as Earth, but it&rsquo;s blanketed by clouds that keep the surface temperature at nearly 900 degrees. Those clouds also make the planet brilliantly reflective.
Venus is about the same size as Earth, but it’s blanketed by clouds that keep the surface temperature at nearly 900 degrees. Those clouds also make the planet brilliantly reflective. (NASA/JPL-Caltech) Photo Gallery

If local weather permits — and that’s always an astronomical if in this generally overcast season — the night sky on and around Christmas will shine with a magical, silver-white glow.

Remember the mythical star that supposedly lit up the Middle Eastern night sky a little over 2,000 years ago, leading the way to a profound happening in Bethlehem? Well, this isn’t that.

Go ahead and feast your holiday spirit upon heavenly light anyway, because it certainly is a cosmic occurrence worth admiring: the Cold Moon.

Today the moon is what’s called “new,” that is, invisible. That’s because it’s positioned between Earth and the sun. During daytime it’s lost in the sun’s glare, and when the sun sets in early evening, the moon immediately follows it below the horizon.

Full moon monikers by the month

A cosmically curious fact about the moon is that it’s “tidally linked” with Earth, meaning that it rotates (spins) at exactly the same rate it revolves (orbits) around us. To our wondering eyes, the effect is that the same hemisphere of the moon — the one with a weirdly recognizable human face — is always gazing upon us while the other hemisphere is always hidden. (The hidden side is nicknamed the “dark” side, but that’s not accurate. The whole moon gets bathed in sunlight over the course of its orbit.)

We only see the moonlight that’s reflected our way, which is constantly changing as the moon runs circles around us. That’s why the moon appears to have phases. Every 29.5 days, the moon reaches full phase.

People have been linking the near-monthly full moon to the changing seasons and their own subsistence for about as long as there have been people. Today’s list of full-moon nicknames is a historical mashup from numerous sources, Indigenous American tribes to European settlers, that’s been popularized by The Old Farmers Almanac:

January: Wolf Moon. Named for hungry winter howls. Also called Cold Moon and Ice Moon.

February: Snow Moon. Named for the year’s heaviest weather. Also called Storm Moon and Hunger Moon.

March: Worm Moon. Earthworms reappear in the softening ground. Also called Crow Moon, Crust Moon (for the crust on snow) or Sap Moon (marking the season of tapping maple trees).

April: Pink Moon. Early blooming wildflowers, especially vivid pink phlox, inspired this name. Also called Sprouting Grass Moon, Egg Moon, Fish Moon.

May: Flower Moon. Spring in full bloom. Also called Hare Moon, Corn Planting Moon, Milk Moon.

June: Strawberry Moon. It’s the peak of strawberry picking season. Also called Rose Moon and Hot Moon.

July: Buck Moon. Male deer sprout new antlers. Also called Thunder Moon and Hay Moon.

August: Sturgeon Moon. This huge historical fish is abundant in late summer in the Great Lakes and elsewhere. Also called Red Moon (for late summer haze), Green Corn Moon and Grain Moon.

Aug. 19, 2024:Blue Moon. An additional name for either the second full moon within the same month or (this coming August) the third full moon within a season that normally sees three but this time gets four, bumping up the year’s total from 12 to 13. The bonus full moon occurs every 2½ years, according to NASA, because the moon’s orbit is a little quicker than one month (29.5 days) and it completes 12 whole cycles quicker than one calendar year (354 days).

September: Harvest Moon. Crops are gathered, possibly into the evening, by the light of the full moon. Other names are Corn Moon and Barley Moon.

October: Hunter’s Moon. Deer, foxes and other prey cannot hide in fields that have been harvested.

November: Beaver Moon. Beavers get active, and so do trappers. Also called Frost Moon.

December: Cold Moon. The longest, darkest nights of the year. Also called Long Nights Moon and Oak Moon.

— Sources: National Geographic, In-The-Sky.org, Space.com

Everything will be different in a couple of weeks. The moon will have traveled halfway along its 29.5-day orbital path around the Earth, arriving virtually opposite the sun from our perspective. When the moon rises in the east, the sun sets in the west, ceding the night sky to moonlight.

Moonrise will shift later and later throughout December by nearly a whole hour each day. Over on the other side of the sky, the sun will reliably set just after 4:30 p.m.

(Want the precise times? On Christmas Eve, the moon rises at 2:26 p.m. and the sun sets at 4:31 p.m. On Christmas Day, the moon rises at 3:07 p.m. and the sun sets at 4:32 p.m. On Dec. 26, the moon rises at 3:59 p.m. and the sun sets at 4:32 p.m.)

Dec. 26 is the actual date of the full moon, so that’s the night a really round orb will soar high — but slowly — across the sky. The moon won’t set again until the next morning at nearly 9 a.m. Clouds willing, you might be able to enjoy some super space shine on Boxing Day.

Meandering moon

When objects in the sky draw close together, it’s called a conjunction. Conjunctions can make for interesting and beautiful viewing.

The meandering moon will share the spotlight with some planetary co-stars in December and early January.

Dec. 17: Saturn. The moon’s visibility will have increased from zero (“new”) to 30 percent as it pairs up with the famously ringed planet. To the naked eye, Saturn looks like a bright yellow star. With standard binoculars it might appear a little oblong. It takes powerful binoculars — more likely a telescope — for that oblong shape to resolve into a slightly flattened globe surrounded by a horizontal ring system.

Dec. 19: Neptune. Like Saturn, Neptune is what’s called a gas giant, but at 2.8 billion miles from our eyes, it’s impossible to see without assistance. (Neptune is the farthest official planet from the sun in our system of eight, since astronomers demoted tiny Pluto to “dwarf planet” in 2006.) If you’ve got powerful binoculars or a telescope, tonight’s the night to try picking out the blue-green dot to the upper right of the moon.

Dec. 21-22: Jupiter. Jupiter is king of the gas giants and the closest to Earth. It’s the most visible, often appearing conspicuously bright and sometimes even too bulky in the sky to pass as a star. Jupiter should be gleaming brightly, just beside the moon, on Dec. 21 and 22. If you do own binoculars — even low-powered ones — dig them out to look at this spectacular planet. Jupiter is beribboned with horizontal weather patterns, studded with a whirling red spot and surrounded by four large moons (in addition to dozens of small ones), all of which can be seen with minimal optical assistance.

Jan. 8: Venus. Venus is almost Earth’s twin. It’s the same size (small and rocky) and in the same neighborhood (relatively near the sun). But its surface conditions are hellishly hot at nearly 900 degrees. That’s caused by a runaway greenhouse-gas atmospheric cycle. The choking cloud cover also contributes to Venus’ remarkable brilliance. (Some uninformed observers have been known to assume it’s an airplane or spaceship.) This will be a morning conjunction, as Venus rises at 5:08 a.m. and the moon at 5:21 a.m.

Meteor shower

Also visible — if the sky is clear — in the next few days is the Geminid Meteor Shower.

“Geminids are so bright that this should be a good show,” said Jim Todd, the director of Space Science Education at OMSI. “You can see the Geminids anywhere in the sky and from anywhere on Earth. … The Geminids are often bright and intensely colored.”

The radiant point of the Geminid Meteor Shower is the constellation Gemini, rising in the east-northeast at about 5:15 p.m. Best viewing will be 10 p.m. onward into early morning. The American Meteor Society says as many as 100 meteors per hour, or even more, may be visible. (Seasoned meteor watchers — especially in the city, near light pollution — know to take such claims with grains of salt.)

The Geminids peak Dec. 13-14 but may be active all the way through Dec. 24.