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Friday, January 18 , 2019, 8:48 am | Fair 52º


Dennis Mammana: Harvest Moon Gives Us a Chance to Reap What It Shows

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See the harvest moon after dark this week. (Creators.com illustration)

When the full moon rises around sunset on Monday, Sept. 24, many will be watching.

“Why?” you may ask. Because that’s the day of the annual harvest moon, and folks often tend to think that it is somehow different than all other full moons of the year.

Some believe it appears larger and redder than normal, but this just isn’t true. Much like the sun, the moon always appears redder when rising, since its light must pass through a greater path of atmosphere on its way to our eye.

As for its apparent immensity, it’s no different than any other time we see the moon near the horizon. Its seemingly huge size is caused by an optical trick known as the Moon Illusion.

No, “harvest moon” is simply a name given to the full moon that occurs closest to the autumnal equinox — the beginning of autumn; this year, that occurred on Sept. 22, when crops are traditionally ready for gathering.

Similarly, the full moon of each month has its own name, bestowed upon it by the early cultures of North America. For example, next month’s full moon was named the hunter’s moon, since October is the time for hunting and stocking up for the cold winter months ahead.

November marks the time to set beaver traps before the waters freeze, so its full moon became known as the beaver moon.

And finally, the full moon of December was called by some the cold moon or the long-nights moon, so named because in December, the winter cold fastens its grip, and the nights are longest and darkest.

Whatever we call it, the rising full moon is always impressive. Even the unaided eye or binoculars will reveal that the lunar surface is not uniformly bright but instead has a mottled appearance. We know the lighter areas of our moon as mountainous or heavily cratered terrain of generally higher elevation, and we call them the lunar highlands.

The darker areas are roughly circular in shape and cover much of the moon’s face. Some ancient sky watchers believed these were lunar oceans and named them the “mare” or “seas,” a name they still carry today, even though we know the moon is a dry and barren world.

We now know the mare as large plains of solidified lava that welled up from deep inside the moon during its early evolution and flooded the lowlands. Many of these features still carry the poetic names of antiquity: the Sea of Serenity, Ocean of Storms and more.

Perhaps most famous of these is the Sea of Tranquility, made famous by the Apollo 11 mission, which landed the first man on the moon. It lies near the western edge of the moon and appears near the top of the rising moon.

Now, maybe all this science stuff will add to your appreciation of the rising harvest moon, and maybe it won’t. Either way, here’s my advice: On Monday afternoon, gather your sweetie, a nice picnic dinner and a blanket, and head toward a hilltop with a nice view toward the east.

If the sky is clear, I promise you’ll enjoy the show!

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.

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