Eclipse-o-rama(ish)

Published by chris on

If you follow Facebook or other social media, you’ve surely seen the teasers for 2020. Even Forbes has jumped on this one: Six Eclipses, Three Supermoons and A Rare ‘Great Solstice Appulse’: A Skywatcher’s Guide To 2020.

That’s a pretty huge claim. Is it really going to be that exciting? Let’s pick this apart a bit and see what we have.

Let’s start with the “Supermoons.”

According to Wikipedia:

The name supermoon was coined by astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979, in Dell Horoscope magazine arbitrarily defined as:
… a new or full moon which occurs with the Moon at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit (perigee). In short, Earth, Moon and Sun are all in a line, with Moon in its nearest approach to Earth.
— Richard Nolle

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supermoon

So first we see that the idea of a Supermoon is only a few decades old. It’s not a part of the long, multi-millennia astrological tradition. Now that doesn’t make it wrong or bad on its face, but it doesn’t mean that it’s automatically “a thing,” either. Why did Nolle decide on 90%? It seems pretty arbitrary.

Of the 12-13 Full or New Moons that happen each year, 3-4 of each would potentially qualify as a Supermoon. That’s about 1/3 of the Moons each year. Looking again at the title of the Forbes article (and others), every year will have “Three Supermoons” on average. Big whoop.

And while Full Supermoons seem to appear slightly larger than other Full Moons, the difference is slight. According to renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “If last month’s Full Moon were a 16.0 inch pizza, then this month’s ‘Super’ Moon would be 16.1 inches. I’m just saying.” he tweeted. “If a 16.1 inch pizza is ‘super’ to you, compared with a 16.0 inch pizza, then we have an issue of vocabulary,” he added.

But as an astrologer, what’s disappointing is the complete lack of any meaning attached to this. Especially since the term was coined by an astrologer.

It seems that the term is used just to gin up emotions and probably to get clicks.

Let’s turn to eclipses.

Solar and lunar eclipses happen a few times every year, regardless of whether we can see them from our location on the planet. Twice yearly, on average, there is a solar eclipse, and either two weeks before or after it, there is likely to be a lunar eclipse. We refer to each of these pairs as “eclipse season.”

So just what is an eclipse? We all learn that when the Sun, Moon, and Earth “line up,” we get an eclipse. That’s true, but a bit vague.

Each month, the Moon passes the Sun in its orbit. But only twice a year (on average), they line up exactly. Part of the difficulty here is that we can’t really see a New Moon, by definition. When the Moon nears the Sun each month, the light of the Sun blots out its own reflected light on the Moon. So at a New Moon, the Moon is above the horizon during the day, so close to the Sun that we can’t even see it.

But the Moon may be slightly above or below the Sun in any given month. The path that the Sun traces in the sky is called the “ecliptic” (note that this gives us the word “eclipse”).

Each planet, and the Moon, follow their own paths that don’t quite line up exactly with the ecliptic (the path of the Sun). Think of two wedding bands or hula-hoops that are crossed over each other. One of these represents the ecliptic (Sun) and the other the path of the Moon.

Wedding Bands Intercrossed
The crossing points represent the nodes.

Those points where the rings cross are called the “nodes” (which is related to the word “knot”). At any given moment, one of those nodes is above the horizon and one is below. When the New or Full Moons occur right on one of the nodes, then the Moon, the Sun, and the Earth line up enough so that the Moon blocks out some sunlight (Solar Eclipse), or the Earth blocks the sunlight from getting to the Moon (Lunar Eclipse).

Every once in a while, the Moon and Sun line up so tightly that there is a partial Lunar Eclipse at the Full Moon, followed by a total Solar Eclipse at the New Moon, and then another partial Lunar Eclipse at the next Full Moon. This only happens with the Moon is so dead-on with the Sun for the Solar Eclipse, that it’s still within range to line up enough both before and after by two weeks.

This happens every once in a while, but it is a bit uncommon for it to happen twice a year. That’s why, instead of 4 eclipses, we’ll have 6 in 2020.

Compare these two images of the total Solar Eclipse from July 2019 as seen from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the New Moon in August, one month later.

The Sun is a bit difficult to see in the image on the left, because the Moon is completely covering it.

But in the image on the right, you can see that the Moon is down below the Sun, and now it’s hard to see because the Sun is blotting out its light.

Look closely and you’ll see that the Sun is placed along an imaginary gold line, the ecliptic, and the Moon is on a reddish one. In the image of the eclipse, the two celestial bodies meet where the lines meet, creating an eclipse.

In the image of the New Moon, they are not at the meeting point of the two rings, even though they line up, one above the other. Sort of like two ships that pass each other instead of crashing.

And speaking of crashing, we still need to talk about what eclipses mean for us astrologically. But I’m going to save that for my next post.

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