What is a supermoon? We agree it’s catchy—and anything that encourages us to explore the night sky is positive—but also let’s get our facts right.
The “Super Blood Wolf Moon”
The next supermoon occurs on January 20–21, 2019, but there’s more to it than that. On the evening of January 20, we will be treated to the only total lunar eclipse of 2019. Visible for its entirety in North and South America, this eclipse is being referred to by some as a supermoon.
What is a Supermoon?
The term “supermoon” is not an astronomical term. In fact, it did not even exist until someone concocted it recently.
- “Super” has come to mean that time when the Moon will be closest to Earth in its orbit during the full Moon.
- It has also meant the closest of two or three Moons each year.
- More recently, I saw an article quoting, ”4 to 6 supermoons each year.” It was accompanied by a photo of a giant red Moon; they were obviously confused between a totally eclipsed Moon and a merely close Moon. Additionally, they explained that a supermoon “looks 14% larger than normal.”
No, no, and no. Let’s put this to rest. This will also explain why we have not historically used the term “supermoon” in our astronomy calendar in the annual Old Farmer’s Almanac.
The official astronomical name for a supermoon is ”perigee full Moon” or “perigee syzygy.” Not quite as catchy, perhaps.
The word “perigee” refers to the Moon’s closest point to Earth in its monthly orbit, and a “syzygy” is when celestial bodies line up (as the Sun, Earth, and Moon do during a full Moon).
The Moon has an oval or elliptical orbit, not a round one, which means that every night it’s either a bit closer or farther from the Earth than it was the night before.
- At its closest extreme, the Moon can be 14% closer and thus look 14% larger than at its farthest yearly extreme.
- Put another way, it varies 7% from its average size.
Here’s the key fact: Nobody can perceive a 7% difference in the Moon’s size.
And if you could somehow place the year’s biggest possible Moon next to the smallest one in the sky, you’d just barely tell the difference. And that’s with the absolute extreme Moons.
Bottom line: It’s hard to truly perceive any difference at all between the Moon’s size from one month to the next, or one night to the next.
A Supermoon Eclipse
So, what does it mean when a total lunar eclipse happens when the full Moon is at or near the closest point in its orbit to Earth—in other words, it’s a supermoon? After all, the Moon :disappears,” right?
During a so-called supermoon phase, the Moon is deeper inside the umbra shadow and therefore may appear darker. The potential for variation provides a great opportunity for observation. How much brighter or darker is it? Learn more about how to measure a supermoon’s size and brightness.
How to see a Huge Moon
OK, if you want to be guaranteed of seeing a huge-LOOKING Moon, it’s easy…
Simply watch the Moon when it’s rising or setting.
A Moon down near the horizon will always look enormous, thanks to the well-known Moon illusion, which makes our minds exaggerate the size of objects near the skyline.
Try it! If you want a Supermoon, you can have it—any night!
If you’re a Moon lover, see the Almanac’s free Full Moon Guides for each month here.