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Supermoon vs. Perseids: A Battle for the Sunday Night Sky

Natalie Heard Hackett

Monday, August 11, 2014 • 6:00am

MONTCLAIR, NJ – There were two phenomenal reasons to look toward the sky Sunday night. The Aug. 10 supermoon and the Perseids meteor shower occurred at the same time, which were reasons enough for even the novice spectator to be intrigued. The astronomical phenomena will not occur so closely together again until 2034. 

Sunday night's moon was noted as the closest and brightest moon of 2014 reports NASA officials. Astrologists have coined the term "supermoon," which can occur when a full moon approaches the earth on its elliptical orbit closely. This close proximity causes the moon to appear larger than usual as seen from the earth. 

The term supermoon is a new-age term that was first coined by astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979. However, many astronomers refer to it by its technical term, “perigee moon."  According to NASA, a supermoon is up to 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than a regular full moon at its farthest point from the earth.  When a moon is farthest away from the earth, that is called apogee.  The moon circulates the earth in an elliptical orbit or oval manner, which means there is a closest point, perigee, and a farthest point, apogee.  The moon is around 222,000 miles from Earth at perigee and around 252,657 miles away at apogee. 

The illusion of the Moon growing in size during the perigee phenomenon is not yet fully understood by astronomers and occurs about every 411 days.  Astronomists note that approximately every 14th full Moon will be a supermoon with as many as three supermoons per full moon cycle, which explains why each of the 3 full Moons of the summer of 2014 are all supermoons.  

The the first supermoon of the summer of 2014 had taken place on July 12, while the second and brightest took place on Aug. 10 and the third supermoon is set to occur on September 9.  

This sequence is not a rare occurrence says Geoff Chester of the US Naval Observatory.  "Generally speaking, full Moons occur near perigee every 13 months and 18 days, so it's not all that unusual," he says. 

What is rare and unusual, however, is the supermoon and the Perseids occurring at the same time.

PERSEIDS METEOR SHOWER

Occurring between August 10 and August 13, spectators will be able to catch a glimpse of the Perseid meteor shower.  As people gazed upon the supermoon on Sunday night, the brightness of the full moon played a factor in whether or not spectators could catch a glimpse of the Perseid meteor shower.

The Perseids are noted as the best meteor shower of the year because it averages a significant amount of meteors per hour with an abundance of fireballs, which are fast meteors that burn bright in the night sky. Although the supermoon brightened the night sky, thus blocking out many of the dimmer meteors, the Perseids average around 30 to 40 meteors at best and spectators could catch a glimple if they looked closely.

Tony Markham, director of the Society for Popular Astronomy's meteor section offered tips to spectators.

"The Perseids are rich and bright meteors and so many Perseids will still be seen despite the moonlit sky background," he wrote on the SPA's website. "You can minimise the effect of the moonlight by observing with your back to the moon... If possible, keep the moon hidden behind trees or a nearby building."

He added that during this time of year, the moon is relatively close to the horizon, thus leaving much of the sky dark. Markham further suggested looking at an area of sky 20 to 30 degrees away from the Perseid radiant which is the spot near the constellation of Perseus that the meteors appear to fly out from.

The Perseids occur every August when the comet Swift-Tuttle, on its 133 year orbit, swings through the inner solar system, leaving behind a trail of dust.  When the Earth passes through, the dust cloud particles then hit the atmosphere at 140,000mph and burn up in streaking flashes of light, creating the spectacle known as the Perseids. 

The best time to see the meteors is between Saturday and Wednesday, with activity peaking on Tuesday, August 12.

The next supermoon will take place on September 9.

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