THE last time a celestial event of this magnitude happened the Cold War was just beginning to warm up.
So-called supermoons are the stuff of legend have been linked to everything from causing earthquakes to political catastrophe.
On Monday 14 November, the largest supermoon for almost 70 years will be visible in the night sky.
It’s so rare that more than 60,000 people in Sydney have indicated they will be heading down to the city’s beaches to watch the supermoon rise above the ocean.
Professor Miroslav Filipovic, an astronomer at Western Sydney University, told news.com.au supermoons were actually quite regular occurrences, but the coming one was something special.
“Supermoon is not actually not a scientific term, it’s been used by astrologers and we astronomers aren’t exactly a big fan of these guys,” Prof Filipovic said.
“In astronomy the word is ‘perigee’ and it means the closest point the moon is to Earth.”
Roughly every four weeks the moon circles the Earth. However, the orbit is not circular at all, but elliptical so once a month the moon will be at its closest point to Earth and once a month at its farthest.
Rarely, these rotations fling the satellite so close to the Earth it produces a supermoon. A particularly distant orbit is, naturally, a “micro moon”.
Three supermoons are due to occur in 2016. One happened last month and another is due in December.
But what makes Monday’s supermoon so special is it will be a full moon plus it will do its closest fly-by since 1948.
A super-dooper-moon, if you like.
What’s more, it won’t come as close again until 2034. In astronomical terms, the moon will get so close to the Earth it’s basically an interplanetary air kiss.
“During a micro moon, the moon is 400,000km from the earth but during this supermoon it will be only 360,000km away,” said Mr Filipovic.
“That’s 12 to 14 per cent closer or 40,000km, so that’s not a small distance.
“It will not be difficult to see with the naked eye, it will be both bigger and brighter,” he said.
Western Sydney University is one of the only Australian campuses to house its own observatory, the doors of which will be flung open for amateur star gazers to grab a look at the lunar landscape.
Meanwhile, supermoon parties are being held across Australia, including at Sydney’s Bronte Beach organised by Balmain schoolteacher and children’s author Gavin McCormack.
Currently some 50,000 people have decided to watch the supermoon rise out of the Pacific at Mr MCormack’s shindig, which he admitted to news.com.au he was a little surprised by.
“I invited a few friends around to watch the super moon and suddenly there’s 50,000 people going, it’s insane.”
The author of Are These Your Glasses?, the story of a bullied penguin, said the idea for the event came when he was researching a new kids book about a cow that becomes an astronaut and heads to the moon.
Now’s he’s had frantic calls from Bronte residents concerned at the dusk deluge of moon gazers, “but the council said it’s all good”.
Other events included a moon walk from Bondi Beach along the costal cliffs.
Mr McCormack said he remembered gathering around the TV to watch the moon landings and it was an “amazing spectacle”.
His lessons that feature the moon and space are the most popular with students.
“We’re studying space in my class at the moment and I think it’s the unknown, the intangible. When it dawns on them at that every star is a sun and planets go around the sun it’s mind boggling, they’re gripped.”
Dr Michael Brown, an astronomer at Monash University and a member of the Astronomical Society of Australia, said without professional photographic equipment, the best way to appreciate the supermoon was when it was rising and it could be compared to other objects.
“When the moon is close to the horizon and you can see it next to trees it does look bigger than when it’s up in the sky in isolation.”
Monday’s moonrise in Sydney will be at 7.07pm and 7.40pm in Melbourne. In Brisbane the moon will rise at 5.51pm and at 6.33pm in Perth. The supermoon should be visible from anywhere in Australia, cloud permitting.
“It’s nice to appreciate how the size of the moon — It’s like its own planet. The dark patches are basalt plains and if you have a telescope you can see the larger craters.”
Dr Brown said a mythology had grown up about the supposed powers of the moon, particularly the supermoon.
“There’s a long history of people claiming earthquakes follow the alignment of the planets and the position of the moon.
“My favourite is an author from New Zealand who talks about the supermoon’s power to cause earthquakes but he also wrote a book on cat palmistry so it’s pretty weird,” said Dr Brown.
However, Prof Filipovic said when the last moon of this size swept by the Earth — before the term supermoon had even been coined — its effect certainly had tongues wagging.
“I remember the stories from 1948, there were a number of events. It was the first fight between the Russians and American in the United Nations. It was a crazy year 1948, the beginning of the cold war.”
Nevertheless, neither said that had time for such tall tales.
“When anyone does statistical analysis (on natural disasters and the moon’s passing) there’s no correlation at all,” said Dr Brown.
That’s not to say the supermoon won’t have an effect, he said. The closeness of the satellite and the alignment of the Sun will lead to higher Spring perigean tides as the sea is pulled upwards towards the moon.
The coming of the supermoon would be a good opportunity for those intrigued by celestial beings to come face-to-face with a lunar rarity, said Dr Brown.
But for diehard astronomers, there were more interesting events to study, he said.
“We get excited about supernovas, comets and gravitational waves. Supermoons are nice but they don’t get us leaping out of bed.
“For us, they’re not particularly super.”
By Benedict Brook
With many thanks to News.Com