• The next full moon is the Worm Moon

    The guy that lives on the other side of my office wall (and Program Executive for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter), Gordon Johnston, sends out an email once a lunar cycle with details on that full moon and other happenings in the sky. I always find them fascinating, and thought they’d be worth sharing with the rest of the world (or at least the minuscule portion thereof that stops by here). So I asked Gordon if we could post his ~monthly musings on the blog, and he graciously agreed! Thanks, Gordon!

    So without further blathering on my end, here is Gordon’s take on the skies for this lunar cycle. Set your clocks, pull out your telescopes, and enjoy!

    The Next Full Moon is the Worm Moon

    The next full Moon is on Thursday, March 8, 2012.  The Moon will be 180degrees away from the Sun in Earth-based longitude at 4:40 am EST, and willappear full for about three days around this time, from Tuesday eveningthrough Friday morning.

    The full Moon in March is known as the Worm Moon, Sap Moon, Crow Moon, CrustMoon, or Sugar Moon.  According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the native tribes of what is now the northern and eastern U.S. named this the Worm Moon after the earthworm casts that appear as the ground thaws.  The more northern tribes knew this as the Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signaled the endof winter.  Other northern names are the Crust Moon, because the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night, or the Sap Moon as this is the time for tapping maple trees.  Europeans called this the Lenten Moon.

    As to other celestial events between now and the full Moon after next:
    In early March, Mercury is visible in the evening sky, reaching its greatestelongation on Monday, March 5, 2012.  In early March, Jupiter and Venusappear to move closer together, reaching their closest (called conjunction) on Tuesday, March 13, 2012, after which they will appear to move apart again.  Mars continues to ride high in the sky, rising around sunset and setting around sunrise, having been opposite the Sun (as seen from theEarth, called “opposition”) on Saturday, March 3, 2012.  Saturn rises later in the evening (around the time Venus and Jupiter set) and rides high in the early morning sky.  Saturn will be at opposition on Sunday, April 15, 2012.
    Here are more specific dates and events:

    On Monday, March 5, 2012, Mercury will be at its greatest elongation, and this will be the most favorable opportunity to look for Mercury in 2012 (forthe northern hemisphere, at least).  Look for it about 45 minutes to an hourafter sunset (around 6:45 to 7 pm in the Washington, DC area) very low on the western horizon.  Venus and Jupiter will appear close together higher inthe sky.

    Also on Monday, March 5, 2012, Mars will be at its closest to the Earth forthis cycle.  Because the orbits of both Mars and the Earth are not perfectcircles, there is a slight offset from when Mars is opposite the Sun on March 3rd and when it is closest to the Earth on March 5th.

    On Saturday night/Sunday morning, March 10 to 11, 2012, the waning (i.e.,past full) gibbous (i.e., but still more than half full) Moon will form a triangle with the planet Saturn and the bright star Spica.  For the Washington, DC area, the Moon will rise at about 9:23 pm EST on Saturday and reach its highest point in the sky at 3:40 am EDT on Sunday (note the one hour shift to Daylight Savings Time).

    We “spring forward” into daylight savings time on Sunday, March 11, 2012,giving us an “extra” hour of sunlight in the evening but shifting the time of sunrise back to within a few minutes of when sunrise was in late December and early January.  These are not the latest sunrises of the year.  The latest sunrises will come in late October and early November, just before we”fall back” to standard time.

    On Tuesday, March 13, 2012, Venus and Jupiter appear closest to each other in the evening sky (called conjunction), about 3 degrees apart.

    The Vernal Equinox on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 marks the beginning of spring.The equinox is at 1:14 am EDT, so for those in MDT and time zones further west the first day of spring is on Monday, March 19, 2012.

    On Sunday evening, March 25, 2012, look for the crescent Moon in the western sky after sunset.  Jupiter will be about 3 degrees below the Moon and Venus will appear about 8 degrees to the upper left.  For the Washington, DC area,sunset is at 7:25 pm EDT and moonset is at 10:32 pm EDT.

    On Monday, Mar 26, 2012, the Moon will have shifted to about 4 degrees left of Venus, with Jupiter about 11 degrees to the lower right from Venus. Venus is bright enough to be seen in broad daylight if you can find it. Using the Moon as a guide, you should be able to find Venus before sunset. For the Washington, DC area, sunset is at 7:26 pm EDT and moonset is at11:27 pm EDT.

    On Tuesday, March 27, 2012, Venus reaches its greatest elongation, setting as long after sunset as it will for this appearance.  Since Venus orbits closer to the Sun than the Earth does, we always see it either as the Evening Star or as the Morning Star.

    On Tuesday evening, April 3, 2012, Venus will appear to the left of the Pleiades star cluster.  Especially with binoculars or a small telescope, this bright plant should appear swimming in a sea of stars.

    The full Moon after next will be on Friday, April 6, 2012.