This week, Mercury and the dimmer Saturn are drawing closer to each other below a brilliant Venus low in the eastern sky every day at about 6 a.m. But far easier to see is our prime sight and topic of the week: the Harvest Moon.
Harvest Moon: The Harvest Moon is the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox, or the start of fall. This year, the Harvest Moon occurs in October instead of the usual September. A Harvest Moon occurring in October will not happen again until 2017.
The Harvest Moon will occur Saturday night/Sunday morning in the eastern U.S. The exact time of the full moon is 2:10 a.m. Sunday. The moon will look like a completely lit round orb all night.
A casual observer will think the moon looks full for several nights around the time of the full moon. What's more, the behavior that makes the Harvest Moon special is actually best seen over the course of a few nights.
The full moon always rises at about sunset. What is special about the moon around the time of the Harvest Moon is that it rises at almost the same time several nights in a row. Usually, the moon rises about an hour later each night. But at sunset at this time of year, the zodiac and the moon's path in the sky make their shallowest angle with respect to the eastern horizon. This helps the moon rise above the horizon earlier than it otherwise would. It also helps the moon linger near the eastern horizon longer than usual. So from about Friday through next Tuesday, you can enjoy, each day at dusk, the sight of a big, possibly orange (from horizon haze) moon low in the east. If you wanted to use that extra moonlight at day's end to extend your hours of harvesting, you could, for that is the origin of the name Harvest Moon.
The eerie artificial cloud: At dusk Saturday, Sept. 19, a rocket launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, released a glowing cloud of aluminum particles about 170 miles high over the Atlantic Ocean. People as far north as New Hampshire got good views and photos.
I was at East Point on Delaware Bay with local astronomer Ray Maher and a few other people. Low down in the south, we saw the rocket make one orange burst and a quickly rising point of light that resembled a star, then a second and brighter orange burst and "star" rising on a thin trail of flame. Then came a six-minute wait.
Suddenly a bizarre, milky-white glowing cloud blossomed and grew rather high in the southeast sky. It was only prominent for about a minute but as it was spraying out, with an odd lane of dark down its middle, it reminded me of some ominous scene from "The War of the Worlds."
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: