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Saturday, March 23 , 2019, 9:08 pm | A Few Clouds 58º

 
 
 
 
Astronomy

Dennis Mammana: New Moon in Old Moon’s Arms Brings Back Memories

View the new moon in the old moon’s arms after dark this week. Click to view larger
View the new moon in the old moon’s arms after dark this week. (Dennis Mammana photo / www.dennismammana.com)

It’s amazing how the sky can be such a great memory trigger.

I remember racing home from school each day as a child to watch Superman on television as the comforting aroma of my mom’s cooking wafted through the house. It was such fun to learn how this “visitor from another planet” would save our world each night.

But it was the ending credits that always gave me the greatest thrill. With proud and majestic music, images of planets and moons appeared behind the words, all in various crescent phases. They looked so real and mysterious and exciting at a time when travel to other worlds was merely a dream.

After the show, I’d often throw on a coat and run out to the backyard to watch the stars come out. Sometimes I’d be surprised by a wonderful crescent moon hanging beautifully above the colorful sunset. It always appeared so delicate, so exquisite and three-dimensional.

Seeing this magical sight made me feel that all was OK, much like the ending credits after Superman had saved the world. But this ... this was the real thing!

During this upcoming week, we will see the crescent moon put on a show much like this, just as it does each month. By Monday or Tuesday, we’ll see the moon appearing shortly after sunset — a delicate crescent hovering low over the western horizon at dusk.

As darkness begins to fall during the following few nights, look carefully at the moon and you will see not only a sunlit crescent but also the ghostly image of its full disk. In fact, if you want a stunning 3-D experience, check it out with binoculars or a small telescope.

Why the moon’s “dark side” becomes visible at these times was first explained by the famous 15th-century Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci.

He recognized that when the moon appears as a crescent in our sky, a hypothetical lunar astronomer would see in his sky a nearly full Earth. And just as a bright moon illuminates the dark night on Earth, a bright Earth would illuminate the darkness of the moon.

Today, we know this phenomenon as the moon’s ashen glow, or, more poetically, as the new moon in the old moon's arms. Most of us, however, call it “Earthshine.”

Earthshine is more than just a beautiful sight. Careful study of it can reveal much about the Earth’s reflecting cloud cover.

Backyard stargazers can also monitor its changes from month to month. Simply note how many lunar features you can see because of it, how the brightness of twilight, sky transparency and the moon’s altitude affect its appearance, and how its brightness changes with the amount of cloud cover you see on satellite weather photos of our Earth.

Be sure to get out to see it before the moon becomes too bright by the end of the week. If you should miss it, don’t worry; it’ll appear like this again next month. And though I’ll be traveling in Alaska at the time, I’ll be enjoying this most beautiful of moons as I relive some of my most wonderful and magical memories of childhood.

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. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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