A Spectacular Moon Show

By Tina Turney
Posted 12/30/99

In addition to celebrating Christmas this past week, we were treated to a spectacular natural event that occurs only once in a person’s lifetime, if you’re lucky.

The moon is our closest …

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A Spectacular Moon Show


In addition to celebrating Christmas this past week, we were treated to a spectacular natural event that occurs only once in a person’s lifetime, if you’re lucky.

The moon is our closest neighbor in space and is also the brightest object in the night sky. While the moon gives off no light of its own, it shines or reflects light back from the sun.

The moon itself doesn’t change shape, although at times in the lunar month, which is 29 1/2 days long, it may appear as a thin slice or a complete round ball.

Because the moon is so close to earth compared to the other heavenly bodies, it seems very large, as large as the sun in fact.

Actually the moon is about 2,160 miles in diameter which is about one-fourth the width of the earth. Its size is 400 times smaller than the sun. An example would be the difference between a basketball (earth) and a tennis ball (moon).

A history-making event of the twentieth century that none of us will ever forget was man’s landing on the moon, actually setting foot on its surface. On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong achieved man’s dream of traveling to the moon and then returning safely back to earth. Since that time we have learned more about space and the moon than during all the previous history of human existence on earth.

Last week, for the first time in 133 years, the moon was at the “full” stage in its orbit at the same time as the winter solstice, December 22. The last time this event was recorded in North America was in the year 1866.

The orbit of the moon is oval which causes the moon to be different distances from the earth at different times of the year. At its closest point, the moon is 221,456 miles away which is called its perigee. The moon’s farthest point from earth, 252,711 miles, is known as its apogee. The spectacular large bright moon seen last week, which lasted for about three nights, was caused by the full moon occurring at the same time as the winter solstice.

There are two solstices that occur each year. In the Northern Hemisphere the summer solstice is June 21 and the winter one is December 22. When the summer solstice occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Pole slants most directly toward the sun. During this time of year Santa Claus wears shorts and his reindeer shed all their fur. On this day in June there are the most hours of daylight, which then begin to gradually shorten as fall and winter approach. The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere occurs when the North Pole slants most directly away from the sun. The days become very short with darkness beginning around five o’clock in the evening.

Last week when the moon was in its perigee stage it appeared about fourteen percent larger than when it’s in its apogee stage. Also, sunlight striking the moon made it appear seven percent brighter due to the earth being several million miles closer to the sun than it is in the summer.

On the nights of December 21 through December 24, here in Iowa we were able to observe this extremely bright full moon as it “rose” in the eastern sky about 4:45 p.m. At times during the several nights of its peak it was hidden by fog or clouds. In the early morning of December 23 the large bright moon shining on the snow-covered ground made it appear almost as bright as day.

This spectacular lunar event won’t occur again for over one hundred years, not until the early part of the twenty-second century. Think of the changes that have taken place here in Iowa since the last full moon on the winter solstice in conjunction with the lunar perigee 133 years ago. What will Iowa be like the next time this phenomenon occurs???