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Sunday’s Supermoon: Overhyped?

The nearside of the moon. Photo by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.

A message to the skywatchers: tilt your head back after nightfall on Sunday, and you’ll see the closest full moon of the year — a phenomenon known as a “supermoon.”

Except it’s not all that super, and it’s not really a phenomenon. In fact, the term “supermoon” was coined not by a scientist, but by an astrologer. And unless you’re uniquely in tune with the brightness and largeness of the moon on other nights, you likely won’t notice a difference.

But, NASA scientists say, any excuse to gaze at the moon trumps the lack of geophysical significance.

Let’s back up. The moon orbits the Earth with an elliptical shape every month, which means once a month it reaches the point in its orbit closest to Earth — that’s known as perigee. On Sunday, the moon will be 10 percent closer than an average perigee and full — and thus about 12 percent bigger, according to Michelle Thaller, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.

But can the human eye discern a 12 percent difference?

“Not really,” Thaller said. “The human eye can’t really pick that out. It’s going to be a beautiful, bright, slightly larger full moon.”

The supermoon will not be responsible for natural disasters, she stressed. That’s been suggested since the moon’s gravitational pull increases the closer it gets. Sunday’s perigee moon could, however, result in slightly higher tides – by about an inch, she said.

Still, it’s a terrific excuse for moonwatching. So in the spirit of the occasion, we have some notes from lunar scientists to help us look at the moon.

In the Northern hemisphere, we talk about the man on the moon — volcanic markings that some say look like a face. But the southern hemisphere — Australia, for example — sees the moon upside down relative to the U.S. There, they say it looks like a rabbit or a frog, Thaller said.

The dark spots on the moon are lava flows — volcanic plains that formed 2 to 3 billion years ago. Asteroids slammed into the moon, cracking it’s crust, and lava flowed up, filling huge empty space. That’s now made up of big lava plains, dark because they have little reflectivity — about as much as a lump of coal.

In the moon’s brighter regions, you’re seeing the ancient crust that formed 4.5 billion years ago. And then there are the lunar craters, bowl-shaped depressions, formed also by large impacts from asteroids crashing into the moon’s surface.

Craters of the moon, captured from the Apollo 16 spacecraft on July 10, 1972. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images.

“On Earth, you don’t have a lot of old rocks that go back that far,” said Noah Petro, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center. “Because we have wind and weather and rain and plate tectonics, the crust of the Earth gets recycled.”

But on the moon, these features are preserved over 3 or 4 billion years.

“Just looking at the moon, you see the history of the solar system,” Thaller said. “You see things hitting and cracking the crust of the moon.”

So has the supermoon been overhyped?

“As part of the machine that’s overhyping it, yes and no,” Petro said. Although the supermoon will have no real geophysical impact, he said, “it’s a day during the year that we can talk about the moon. And that’s really important.”


  • Tonight, 20 high school finalists will present and perform their own rap songs about physics and biology in the Hip Hop Final Science Battle at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The students were chosen from 300 finalists. A team of judges that includes Wu Tang Clan’s GZA will select a winner. The winning teen will have their entry professionally recorded and get the to hang out with GZA for a day. If you’re in New York, the event starts at 7 p.m. tonight at Teachers College.*

VANISHING FISH from Science News on Vimeo.

And more on how it works here.

  • From BoingBoing: “So, here’s a new writing nightmare. What do you do if, after your book is published, and the reviews start to come in, it slowly dawns on you that you’ve accidentally written the wrong book … a book which you would not actually agree with? “

  • Turns out billion-year-old water doesn’t taste so good. Researchers at the University of Toronto said pockets of water isolated far below the earth’s surface taste “extremely salty,” and have the “consistency of very light maple syrup,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Princeton University sponsored a competition for scientifically derived works of art. An explanation of some of the winning images and thumbnails of the winning slides can be found here:

  • Mutant Silkworms Spin Fluorescent Silk in 3 Colors

  • Check out the interactive panorama from NASA’s Curiosity rover. Try full screen mode. Wired reports.

*Note: This is different than the PBS NewsHour’s science rap contest, which will announce its winner on July 1.

Rebecca Jacobson, Patti Parson and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.

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