First a supermoon, then a red blue one to occur in January

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MONROE COUNTY — The countdown for the new year is on, and if you’re planning on watching the sunset on New Year’s Day, you may want to turn around. Opposite the setting sun, a supermoon will be low-hanging in the sky and experts say that’s the best time to see it.

This is the second supermoon in a three-part sequence. The first happened Dec. 3. If you missed it, Jan. 1 is your chance to see it again. A rare one follows at month’s end.

The moon’s orbit isn’t perfectly circular, nor is the Earth perfectly centered within. Instead, the moon travels in an ellipse that brings it closer to and farther from the Earth. The moon orbits the earth every 27 days.

A supermoon is when the moon is closest to the Earth on its orbit. The moon’s closest orbit point, called the perigee, is 30,000 miles nearer to Earth than its further point, apogee. The average distance between the two bodies is 238,900 miles.

“Sometimes the moon is a little closer and sometimes it’s a little farther away. This happens every few years, it’s not highly unusual. The thing about this supermoon is that the three events are so close together,” said James Webb, P.h.D., physics professor at Florida International University in Miami. “I don’t know when the next time this will occur, but probably a while.”

“It just so happens the way things are moving right now, we’re at the perigee,” Webb said.

On Jan. 1, the moon will rise out of the east and be straight overhead at midnight as all full moons are. When it’s a full moon, the sun and the moon are always at 180 degrees apart, according to FIU physics professor Caroline Simpson, Ph.D.

According to NASA, the moon will appear 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter, but experts’ opinions vary on this.

“There is nothing super about the supermoon,” Simpson said. “It’s nominally larger than other times. It’s nice that it gets people thinking about it, though, and they do tend to come in triples.”

Webb estimates the supermoon to be about 18 percent closer to Earth, not a huge amount. He said that people perceive it as much bigger especially when it’s on the horizon, or just rising.

“The supermoon will be up all night long. As the sun sets the moon will be on the horizon and that is the best time to see it because it’s an optical illusion,” Webb said.

The moon appears bigger on the horizon since, visually, there are objects to compare it to.

For the grand finale in the moon trilogy, mark your calendars for Jan. 31, when the sun, moon and Earth will be perfectly aligned. It will be a super blue moon eclipse, but you have to get up early to see it.

A blue moon isn’t actually blue. The name refers it being the second full moon in the calendar month, which is rare as it happens only once every 2.5 years.

This blue moon will be a supermoon, which, as it enters the Earth’s shadow, will appear red from light reflecting off Earth since red has the longest wavelengths.

“It’s going to be a moon bonanza,” Webb said.

Webb added that he’d like to dispel the myth that the gravitational pull of the moon affects human behavior.

“It just gives us a nice show,” he said.

Simpson agrees this is a rare celestial event, a super blue lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, we’ll have only a brief glimpse.

“We aren’t well-placed to see it [the eclipse] here,” she said. “The moon is going to start entering the moon’s umbra, or darkest shadow, around 6:45 a.m. It’s going to set at 7:02. So there will be about 15 minutes there to see it turn red from 6:45 to 7 a.m. If you have a clear view of the western horizon, you will see the partial eclipse as the moon sets.”

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