Super moon

These are exciting times for amateur astronomers.

Astronomy buffs are over the moon about this month’s unusual lineup of lunar events.

Richard Walcott, an instructor in the Department of Math and Physical Sciences at Rogers State University, is among them.

"This trilogy of moons is spectacular because it rarely ever happens in such close proximity to each other," Walcott said. "The super moon usually occurs approximately once very 13 months. So to have one Dec. 3 and another Jan. 1 and another Jan. 31 is unusual.

The super moon, he said, is the first part of the trilogy followed by the second, a total lunar eclipse.

"On the 31st there is going to be a total lunar eclipse — where the earth's shadow blocks the sunlight from being reflected off of the moon. Total lunar eclipses occur twice per year because the moon's axis is tilted about five degrees. So to have that in line with the super moon, which occurs whenever the moons orbit happens to be at the closest point to earth, which is called perigee.”

During this period Walcott said, the moon will be about 30,000 miles closer than usual.

"So the moon will appear to be about 14 percent larger and about 30 percent brighter," he added.

He said it's exciting to see everything in alignment.

"For the total lunar eclipse, the super moon also needs the phase of the moon to be full or it's not observable. So it has to be full and it has to be in perigee, so everything has to be in alignment."

Walcott said, "So around 4:51 a.m. on the 31st, that's when the total lunar eclipse will be visible. And it will peak around 7:23 a.m. So if anyone wants to see it in it's full glory, it will be abut that time."

The last day of the month will also see a blue moon.

A blue moon, Walcott explained, is "when you have two full moons in the same month.

"And that's the third piece of this trilogy that makes it so exciting," he said. "We had a full moon on Jan. 1 and another on Jan. 31 because the lunar cycle is about 29 and a half days."

He said blue moons occur about every two and a half years.

"So these are very exciting times for amateur astronomers because very rarely do we have this rhythmic sync —these astronomical objects lining up in such a spectacular way in such close proximity," he said.

In the time he's been studying and teaching astronomy, Walcott said he hasn't seen anything like this.

Rogers State University students enrolled in his astronomy course this semester start class on Jan. 16, just in time for a viewing session of what Walcott called "a truly spectacular trilogy."

Students will have the opportunity to study all three lunar events and do some research into when events lined up in this way last.

"We also try to look at applications and implications of such things. We are in the Bible Belt, so to speak, and people always try to extrapolate beyond the confines of science into faith or astrology... So, even if I'm not ready to discuss that, it comes up from day one," he said.

An enthusiastic Walcott said, "I'm looking forward to it. I can't wait."

Tips for amateur astronomers

"It's always good to get out and try to observe things, whether we have such spectacular events or not," he said. "I also suggest getting involved in local astronomy clubs. You don't have to have expensive binoculars or telescopes, just an understanding of the seasons and times when things happen. For students, I suggest asking your science teacher to take you on a field trip. We have several observatories in Oklahoma."

Additional resources, he said, can be found at www.nasa.gov and www.timeanddate.com

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