The new moon that will grace our skies on Wednesday evening (or Thursday morning, depending on where you are in the world) appears to have employed some advanced publicity agents: It has been dubbed both a black moon and a supermoon.
While it will no doubt be as beautiful as any new moon, and well worth checking out for that reason, it won't actually look very different from ordinary new moons.
Black moons, like blue moons, are not actually colored any differently than others of the same phase. The name refers either to the second new moon in a month or to the third in a season with four new moons. If you use astronomical, rather than meteorological seasons, the northern hemisphere's winter runs from the December solstice to the March equinox, and there will indeed be four new moons this winter. The first was on December 22, less than three hours after the North Pole was tilted furthest from the sun.
The origins of the term are obscure, but probably an imitation of blue moon, which in turn seems to be an adjustment of the obsolete “belewe.”
Supermoons are a more recent invention, possibly by people wanting to make money out of scaring the public with predictions of huge earthquakes. Nevertheless, the name has taken off as a reference to when a full or new moon occurs at the time when it's closest to Earth, making it appear larger. It's a bit more catchy than “perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system,” which is the technical name.
It makes some sense to refer to full moons that look particularly large as supermoons – after all, we do get up to 30% more light in those cases. It's less clear how super a new moon can be. We'll see...more darkness?
Nevertheless, all this publicity could do some good. If you decide you'd like to see a black moon and a supermoon, find yourself a location with a good western horizon. Watch for it as the sun is setting and then make sure you stick around as the sky darkens. Mars and Venus will be low in the west and close enough that they can fit in the field of view of most binoculars. In a few days, the moon will accompany them. Jupiter has only just passed opposition and will provide a magnificent balance in the east. It's also a great time to see theZodiacal Light.
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