In Awe of the Moon

“It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it.”

— Rachel Carson, “The Sense of Wonder”


More nights than not, there’s a stunning show going on above us. From the Milky Way spilling sparkles to the full moon rising like a glowing ember, unfathomable beauty awaits us.

And it keeps on waiting. All too often, flickering blue screens hold our focus, and we fail to give the night sky so much as a glance.

Maine is blessed with relatively dark night skies, a resource lost to light pollution along much of the Eastern Seaboard. Yet even here, with prime seats, we often doze through the show.

Rachel Carson suggested that we reawaken ourselves to the wonders of the night sky by asking: “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”

Every once in a while, astronomers sound a similar wake-up call, alerting us to a rare sky “event” that makes headlines. This month is one such time.

September is notorious for its harvest moon, the full moon falling near the autumnal equinox when day and night are of roughly equal length. On Sept. 27-28, the full moon is billed as a supermoon (more accurately a “perigee full moon,” which occurs when the moon comes closest to Earth in its elliptical orbit). Supermoons occur several times each year, so they’re not once-in-a-generation events by any stretch, but this month’s includes a total lunar eclipse.

According to NASA, that convergence is relatively rare, having occurred only five times since 1900 (most recently in 1982). If you sleep or channel-surf your way through this month’s supermoon lunar eclipse, you’ll have to wait until 2033 for the next show.

NASA is careful not to oversell the event, claiming that while supermoons can appear 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than full moons at their apogee (farthest point from Earth), this one may not look substantially larger.

But beginning around 9 p.m. Sept. 27, there will be a partial and then a total eclipse, revealing a red tint as the moon passes behind Earth into its shadow. The show continues into the wee hours of Sept. 28, for those who want to stay through intermission and watch the eclipse process in reverse.

Without question, we should all “throng to the headlands,” in Carson’s words, to watch this lunar spectacle. But we can also remember that this show does not close. Every cloudless evening – and many early mornings, as well – we have a standing invitation to pause and observe the countless “ordinary” skies that justly deserve the term “awesome.”

The moon, and the tides bound into its gravitational pull, help remind us of forces far greater than ourselves and our technological creations. At a time when we’re hopelessly dependent on black boxes and LED screens, that remembrance in itself is a gift.

The mythology spawned by the moon predates all scientific study. From the earliest rock tracings of prehistoric people, humans have been captivated by the moon’s movements and symbolism.

Continually shifting shape, disappearing and reappearing, it offers the promise of continuity amidst change. That slender crescent, re-emerging month after month, generation after generation, has lent untold millions faith in an uncertain future.

Astronomy teaches us that there’s far more variability to the moon’s orbits than we might have supposed. Yet that paradox of uncertain certainty seems perfectly fitting – just as moonlight blurs the contours of the world we thought we knew.