Happy to be here: On the lookout for a Blue Moon

Published 5:25 pm Friday, August 4, 2023

Some novels include tales of family members or lovers who will soon be separated. While they are apart, they promise to remember each other when they look up and see the same moon. 

Neil Diamond took the sentiment a step further in his song “Done Too Soon.” Its lyrics offer a diverse list of people, including religious leaders, politicians, writers, singers, actors, and even an executed criminal. The song’s conclusion is that all of these individuals shared a few things in common. For one, they had all gazed at the same moon.

Indeed, Earth has one glorious moon. Among all the objects in the night sky, the moon is the largest and the brightest. Scientists say that without the moon’s stabilizing effect on Earth’s rotation, life as we know it couldn’t exist. 

Email newsletter signup

Until the advent of the telescope, our moon was the only moon known to humans. Then in 1610, Galileo discovered four moons circling Jupiter. Those moons, now known as the Galilean moons, are the largest of the 95 that have currently been identified orbiting that giant planet (a number that does not include moonlets and other small objects). Other planets also have moons. Mars has 2, Saturn 146, Uranus 27, and Neptune 14. Even dwarf planet Pluto has 5.

NASA offers an interesting way to understand the relative sizes of the earth and the moon. They say that if you take a U.S. nickel and set a single green pea beside it, you’ll get a general idea about their relative sizes. As for distance, the moon is about 30 Earth-sized planets away. Using this scale, 30 nickels would be about 25 inches.

Another interesting fact about the moon is that its rotation is in sync with its orbit around the Earth. That means it spins around on its axis once for every revolution it makes around our planet. As a result, the same side of the moon is always facing Earth. Until the space age, no human had ever seen the far side of the moon.

The far side of the moon is not the dark side, at least in terms of light. During the course of its orbit around Earth, the portion of the moon that receives sunlight rolls forward day by day. When the side of the moon that faces us is fully illuminated by the sun, we see a full moon. When the illuminated portion is the far side of the moon, we can’t see it in the sky at all. We call this the new moon. Between new and full, the slice of the illuminated portion we can see from Earth’s surface grows and shrinks, creating the moon’s different phases. 

This month offers an excellent opportunity to watch our moon as it passes through all its phases. The full moon (which, this month, is traditionally called the Sturgeon Moon, the Green Corn Moon, or the Grain Moon) occurred on August 1. During the nights afterwards the moon will be “waning” (that is, the illuminated portion will appear to be growing smaller). It will diminish until it appears as a tiny sliver in the eastern sky just before sunrise on August 15. The new moon on August 16 won’t be visible at all. The next evening, a slim crescent will reappear in the west just after sunset. On subsequent nights, it will continue to expand through its “waxing” phases. If you find it challenging to remember the difference between waxing and waning, it can be helpful to think of candle making. Repeatedly dipping a wick into melted wax gradually increases the bulk of the accumulated wax. Waxing.

During the second half of the month, the moon will continue waxing until August 30. Then it will be full once again. While the first full moon of the month carries its traditional name, and second full moon within a calendar month is commonly called a Blue Moon. 

Make sure you plan to enjoy it. As the saying “once in a blue moon” suggests, they don’t happen very often. After this one, the next Blue Moon won’t appear until May 2026.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.