See the Smallest Full Moon of 2014: It’s the “Return of the Mini-Moon”

 Last month, (and last year) we wrote about the visually smallest Full Moon of 2013. Now, in a followup  act, our natural satellite gives  us an even more dramatic lesson in celestial mechanics with an encore performance just one lunation later with the smallest Full Moon of 2014.

We’ve noted the advent of the yearly Mini-Moon, a bizzaro twin to the often over-hyped “SuperMoon,” or Proxigean Full Moon. Occurring approximately six months apart, you can always expect lunar apogee to roughly coincide with the instant of a Full Moon about half a year after it coincides with perigee. In fact, the familiar synodic period that it takes the Moon to return to like phase (such as Full back to Full) of 29.5 days has a lesser known relative known as the anomalistic month, which is the period of time it takes the Moon to return to perigee at 27.55 days.

But the circumstances for “Mini-Moon 2014” are exceptional. The first Full Moon of the year occurs on the night of January 15th at 11:52 PM EST/4:52 Universal Time (on January 16th). This is just 2 hours and 59 minutes after the Moon reaches apogee at 406,536 kilometres distant at 8:53 PM EST/1:53 UT. This isn’t the farthest apogee that occurs in 2014, but it’s close: the Moon is just 32 kilometres more distant on July 28th, 2014. Apogee can vary from 404,000 to 406,700 kilometres, and this month’s apogee falls just 164 kilometres short of the maximum value.

As you can see, this year’s Mini-Moon falls extremely close to apogee… in fact, you have to go all the way back to the Full Moon of November 18th, 1994 to find a closer occurrence, and this year’s won’t be topped until May 13th, 2052! The Moon will appear only 29’ 23” in size on Wednesday night at moonrise, very close to its minimum possible value of 29’ 18”. This is also almost 5 arc minutes smaller than the largest “Super-Moon” possible.

Cool factoid: you actually move closer to the Moon as it rises, until it transits your local meridian and you begin moving away from it, all due to the Earth’s rotation. You can thus gain and lose a maximum of one Earth radii distance from the Moon in the span one night.

We also just passed the most northern Moon of 2014, as it reached a declination of 19 degrees 24’ north this morning at 8:00 UT/3:00 AM EST. This is a far cry from the maximum that can occur, at just over 28 degrees north. This is because we’re headed towards a “shallow year” as the Moon’s motion bottoms out relative to the ecliptic in 2015 and once again begins to widen out in its 18+ year cycle to its maximum in 2024-25.

The position of the Moon Monday night on January 13th in Orion. Credit: Stellarium
The position of the Moon Monday night on January 13th in Orion. Credit: Stellarium

This week’s Moon also visits some interesting celestial targets as well. The waxing gibbous Moon sits just 5.1 degrees south of the open cluster M35 tonight. Notice something odd about the Moon’s position Monday night? That’s because it is passing through Orion the Hunter, one of the six non-zodiacal constellations that it can be found in. Can you name the other five? Hint: one was the “13th sign of the zodiac that created a non-traversy a few years back.

On Tuesday evening, the Moon passes six degrees from the planet Jupiter. This presents a fine time to try and spot the planet in the daytime to the Moon’s upper left, just a few hours prior to sunset.

The Moon will also occult the +3.6 magnitude star Lambda Geminorum on January 15th for observers in northwestern North America. In fact, viewers along a line crossing central British Columbia will witness a spectacular graze along the lunar limb as the star winks out behind lunar mountains and pops into view as it shines through lunar valleys along the edge of the Moon. This can make for an amazing video capture, we’re just throwing that out there…

The occultation footprint for Lambda Geminorum for January 15th. (Created using Occult 4.01 software)
The occultation footprint for Lambda Geminorum for January 15th. (Created using Occult 4.10.11 software)

In addition to being this year’s Mini-Moon, the January Full Moon is also known as the Wolf Moon in the tradition of the Algonquin Native Americans, as January was a time of the mid-winter season when starving wolf packs would howl through the long cold night. The January Full Moon is also sometimes referred to as “The Moon after Yule,” marking the first Full Moon after Christmas.

And just when is the next Super Moon, you might ask? Well, 2014 has three Full Moons occurring within 24 hours of perigee starting on July 15th and finishing up on September 8th. But the most notable is on August 10th, when the Moon passes perigee just 27 minutes from Full. Expect it to be preceded by the usual lunacy that surrounds each annual “Super Moon” as we once again bravely battle the forces of woo and describe just exactly what a perigee Full Moon isn’t capable of. Yes, we still prefer the quixotic term “Proxigean Moon,” but there you go.

Also, be sure to wave a China’s Chang’e-3 lander and rover in the Bay of Rainbows (Sinus Iridum) as you check out this week’s Full Moon, as it just experienced its first lunar sunrise this past week.

Be sure to send those Mini-Moon pics and more in to Universe Today, and let’s get this week’s #MiniMoon trending on Twitter!

Tonight: The Rise of the 2013 “Mini-Moon”

  The final Full Moon of 2013 occurs tonight, and along with it comes something special: the most distant and visually smallest Full Moon of 2013.

Why doesn’t the annual “mini-moon” receive the same fanfare and hype that the yearly perigee – or do you say Proxigean to be uber-obscure – “supermoon” does? The smallest Full Moon of the year does appear to have a public relations problem in this regard. But as you’ll see, the circumstances for this week’s Full Moon are no less fascinating.

The exact timing of tonight’s Full Moon occurs at 4:28 AM EST/9:28 Universal Time (UT) on Tuesday, December 17th. This occurs just two days and 14 hours prior to the Moon reaching apogee on December 19th at 6:50PM EST/23:50 UT at 406,267 kilometres distant. This is one of the three most distant apogees of 2013, and the closest to Full for the year. It’s also with 500 kilometres of the most distant apogee than can occur, as the Moon’s apogee can vary between ~404,000 and 406,700 kilometres distant.

Tonight’s Full Moon will have an apparent angular diameter of around 29.8’ arc minutes, just a shade lower than the usual value quoted of around half a degree or 30’. The visual size of the Moon as seen from the Earth varies about 12% from 34.1’ to 29.3’. Also, the Moon is also about half an Earth radius more distant when it’s on the local horizon versus at the zenith overhead!

This is also the closest Full Moon to the December solstice, which occurs four days later on Saturday, December 21st at 12:11 PM EST/17:11 UT. This marks the start of astronomical summer in the southern hemisphere and the beginning of the winter season in the north. Think of tonight’s Full Moon as a sort of “placeholder,” marking the point at which the Sun will occupy during the June solstice on the Gemini-Taurus border.

This all means that tonight’s Full Moon rides high for northern hemisphere residents towards local midnight. But the “Long Night’s Moon” of 2013 is rather lackluster in terms of declination. While it’s the northernmost Full Moon of 2013 at a declination of +18.7 degrees, it’s a far cry from the maximum declination of +28.72 degrees (the angle of the ecliptic plus the tilt of the Moon’s orbit) that it can achieve. This only occurs every 18.6 years and last occurred in 2006 and will happen again around 2025. We’re currently headed towards a shallow minimum for the Moon’s orbit in 2015. Ancient European and Native American cultures both knew of this cycle of high-flying moons.

Not weird enough? The next “most distant Full Moon of the Year” happens only one lunation later on January 16th… within just 2 hours of apogee! Perhaps January’s Full Moon is due notoriety as a “Super-Mini Moon?” Such a pairing of “mini-moons” last occurred on 2004-2005 and will next occur on 2021-2022.

The footprint for the lunar occultation of M67. (Created by the author using Occult 4.0)
The footprint for the lunar occultation of M67. (Created by the author using Occult 4.1)

The Moon also visits some other celestial sights this week. After passing five degrees north of Jupiter on December 19th, the Moon heads towards an occultation of the open cluster M67 in the constellation Cancer on December 21st for northern North America. Though the Moon will be waning gibbous, it might just be possible to note the reappearance of the cluster on the Moon’s dark limb. Other occultations for the remainder of December by the Moon include an occultation of Spica on December 27th for northern Asia, Saturn on December 29th for Antarctica, and +3.6th magnitude star Lambda Geminorum for Canada on December 18th.

The passing of the Full Moon also means it will be entering into the morning sky, which also means bad news for viewers of the Ursid meteor shower which peaks on December 22nd and hunters of Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy, currently shining at +5th magnitude in the constellation Hercules low in the dawn.

Moon crossing Orion.
Moon crossing Orion this week. (Credit: Stellarium).

The keen-eyed may notice the Moon also transits through the northern end of the non-zodiacal constellation of Orion on Tuesday, December 17th. Did you know that the Moon can actually stray far enough away from the ecliptic to cross through 18 constellations? The Six non-zodiacal constellations it can transit are: Orion, Ophiuchus, Corvus, Sextans, Auriga and Cetus.

Other names for the December Full Moon include the Yule, Oak, and Cold Moon.

Finally, a new Earthly ambassador is now roaming the lunar surface.

China’s Chang’E-3 spacecraft landed on the Moon just outside of the Bay of Rainbows (Sinus Iridum) near Montes Recti in the northern section of the Mare Imbrium on Saturday, December 14th. The landing site is visible now on the lunar nearside, and can be seen with that new Christmas telescope you’ve been itching to try out. Look for the Sinus Iridum as a wide crescent scarp, a sort of “notch” in the top of Mare Imbrium:

Finding the landing site of Chang'e-3. Photos and graphics by author.
Finding the landing site of Chang’e-3. Photos and graphics by author.

China’s Yutu or “Jade Rabbit” rover has been beaming back some splendid images of the lunar surface!

So don’t let the cold temperatures deter you from exploring the lunar surface, and the strange but fascinating motions of our nearest natural celestial neighbor. Dress warm and be sure this Christmas season to raise a glass of ye ole Nog to the Solstice/Yule Moon.