Moons in 1999
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1999: A Year for Basking in Moonlight

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

January 27, 1999

This image of the current phase of the Moon is from the the U.S. Naval Observatory

It seems to rule the oceans and the hearts of lovers, control human fertility and many religions and sometimes determine when to go to war. What does? The Moon does. It is one of the most beautiful and mysterious objects of the sky, and if ever there was a year to pay attention to the Moon it might well be 1999.

The year began with a full moon on New Year's day and we will have another full moon on the last day of January. Having two full moons during one month has come to be known as a "blue moon," because it has been thought to be so rare. "Once in a blue moon," is the old saying we all know. But it really isn't very rare.

Since the moon phase cycle is about 29.5 days long any month except February can occasionally have two full moons. In 1999 February has no full moon at all. Then we have another full moon to begin the month of March as well as one to end the month on. Wow! Two blue moons in just three months.

Each of the other months of the year has one full moon, becoming earlier each month until the one in December is on the 22nd, also the date of the winter solstice. And every month has 12 new moons. Thus, in total, we have 12 new moons and 13 full moons during the year 1999.

This might not seem significant to many people today, but counting lunar cycles has been of utmost importance for many cultures and still is for some. Why does it matter what phase the moon is in?

Probably the most fundamental reason that the lunar cycle has become important in the beliefs of people is that it just happens to have about the same length as the human female menstrual cycle. Thus, in most mythologies the Moon is considered to be female, while the Sun is generally male.

For this important reason and the fact that it is the second great luminary of heaven people long ago and in many different places carefully watched the Moon and counted out its cycles. They noticed that the cycle was not an even number of days, and most important of all that there were not an even number of cycles in one seasonal year. This lack of commensuration between Sun and Moon has created all sorts of dilemmas, especially for people with certain religious beliefs. If a holy day is determined by the phase of the Moon yet must remain seasonal as well it can become difficult to know which lunar cycle to put it in. Each seasonal year contains about 11 days more than 12 lunar cycles. Thus, an extra one must be fit in about every 3 years. Violent arguments have ensued over this problem, sometimes leading to lack of trust in religious leaders, but most cultures that depend upon both Sun and Moon for establishing important days have worked out systems for managing this nasty situation.

Both Moon and Sun cause tides in the oceans and atmosphere of Earth. The Moon being nearer generates the greater tide. Long ago those who sailed the oceans or lived along shore lines observed that the Moon seemed to coax the tide to roll in and out. Especially high tides occurred at new and full moon when Sun, Moon and Earth were all approximately aligned. For some cultures depending upon the oceans for survival, the Moon seemed even more important than the Sun.

Have you noticed in recent years that bombing raids have usually been staged at approximately the time of new moon? I hope I am not revealing an important US secret to Saddam in writing this. The reason is quite obvious; aircraft can more safely conduct such activities when the sky is darkest. The Muslim holy days of Ramadan, beginning with observation of the new moon, complicated a recent attack on Iraq because it was politically expedient not to conduct military activities during such religiously important days, yet it seemed necessary to do so during the darkest time of the month when the raid seemed warranted. Thus we see that the Moon continues to come into the affairs of men in strange and powerful ways.

The Moon is certainly one of the most interesting objects around us. It is, of course, the first body beyond Earth that humans visited. I remember that during the years when we were planning those first expeditions to the Moon some writers lamented that the Moon would lose its charm. "No longer," they wrote, " would lovers sit within its light to spoon away the hours and plan their futures." It would become just another rock in space, they said.

As I think about this now, I do not believe that this prediction came true. As far as I have been able to observe people enjoy the Moon now just as much as ever before, perhaps even more. People stand in long lines to look at it through a telescope and they still hold their sweethearts close in its light. Indeed, I think people find it even more interesting now than before, for it has become our place of initiation as a space venturing species. Someday we will go back there to gather more scientific samples and to establish a truly long-range laboratory in space. Dreams have translated into plans for an astronomical observatory on the far side of the Moon.

The great astronomer, Henry Norris Russell, once said that all good astronomers go to the Moon when they die so that they can observe the stars without unwanted effects of a dirty and cloudy atmosphere. Perhaps our first lunar observatory will be haunted by Dr. Russell and other deceased astronomers.

So, in 1999 take those binoculars out in the night and look around. They are, after all, a pair of little telescopes, one for each eye, and they are great for viewing the Moon and many other things in the sky.

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