January 8, 2009: When last month's full Moon rose over Florida, onlooker Raquel Stanton of Cocoa Beach realized that something was up.
"The Moon was stunningly gorgeous--and it looked bigger than usual!" she says. "My whole family noticed and watched in awe."
Like millions of others around the world, she had witnessed the biggest full Moon of 2008--a "perigee Moon," 14% wider and 30% brighter than lesser Moons she had seen before. "I'll never forget it."
Alert: It's about to happen again.
This Saturday night, Jan. 10th, another perigee Moon is coming. It's the biggest full Moon of 2009, almost identical to the one that impressed onlookers in Dec. 2008.
Above: The perigee full Moon of Dec. 2008. "The moon was very bright and BIG! Just watching it with my telescope was exciting enough, but I had to take this picture for the records," says photographer Ron Hodges of Midland, Texas.
Johannes Kepler explained the phenomenon 400 years ago. The Moon's orbit around Earth is not a circle; it is an ellipse, with one side 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other. Astronomers call the point of closest approach "perigee," and that is where the Moon will be this weekend.
Perigee full Moons come along once or twice a year. 2008 ended with one and now 2009 is beginning with another. It's the best kind of déjà vu for people who love the magic of a moonlit landscape.
January is a snowy month in the northern hemisphere, and the combination of snow + perigee moonlight is simply amazing. When the Moon soars overhead at midnight, the white terrain springs to life with a reflected glow that banishes night, yet is not the same as day. You can read a newspaper, ride a bike, write a letter, and at the same time count the stars overhead. It is an otherworldly experience that really must be sampled first hand.