Back in April of this year, hundreds in Manchester flocked to see the sumptuous glow of a supermoon.
The phenomenon happens when the monthly occurrence of a full moon coincides with the moon’s perigee – the point at which it is closest to the Earth – and therefore appears bigger and brighter.
Hundreds travelled out to Rivington Pike and the Peak District in the hopes of an unclouded view of the spectacle.
Nigel Henbest, author of the Philip’s Stargazing Month-by-Month Guide to the Night Sky, thinks supermoons are overrated.
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“To be honest I think supermoons are totally overhyped. Every time there’s a supermoon the media jump up and down,” he said.
“They come about every 14 months.
“A supermoon is only about 30% brighter than the dimmest full moon.”
Nigel Henbest with the previous edition of Philip’s Stargazing
It’s worth noting that Nigel – astronomer, author, broadcaster, astronaut-in-waiting – has seen eight solar eclipses, most recently in 2020.
He has studied the visible spectrum of quasars, super blackholes surrounded by gaseous disks thought to be nascent galaxies, that can be 1000 times brighter than our sun – so he can be forgiven for thinking supermoons are small fry.
In a recent conversation with the MEN, Nigel outlined the astronomical events the rest of the year still has in store, and how best to spot them.
Jupiter and its moons
(Image: TV Grab)
Jupiter is biggest of the planets and can be seen towards the south part of the sky.
Jupiter rose before the sun in the pre-dawn sky of July 1 and is at it’s most visible now. Last weekend, July’s full moon, Jupiter and Saturn each formed a corner of a cosmic triangle in the night sky.
A telescope will allow you to try and pick out some of Saturn’s 82 moons at this time of year.
A shooting star above Stonehenge
(Image: Getty Images)
The Perseid meteor shower, one of the most active meteor showers in the northern hemisphere, will be visible over the UK in August.
“In the middle of August, we’ve got shooting stars. Around the 12th or 13th there’s going to be a maximum display of shooting stars, where you’ll be seeing a meteor every couple of minutes.
For the best experience, it is essential to have a clear view of the night sky, which will likely mean getting out of the city centre.
“Like everything you’re looking at in the sky, it’s best to get away from light pollution.
“If you can get out into the suburbs, it’s better, obviously if you can get out into the country, maybe out to the Peak District,” Nigel said.
Full moon rising
(Image: Colin Lane/Liverpool Echo)
“In 2021, there are four full moons in the three-month period from June to September. So the seasonal Blue Moon is the third in this series, which is the full moon on August 22,” Nigel said.
Usually, there are 12 full moons every year, three per season. The 12 moons all have names, most given by the indigenous people of north-east America.
“That’s fine for most years, which have 12 Full Moons. But every three years or so, there are 13 Full Moons in a year. That means that one of the seasons has an extra Full Moon, which doesn’t have a traditional name.”
In the 19th century, the Maine farmer’s Almanac referred to this extra moon as the blue moon, although it’s not known why.
The Almanac gave the name to the third moon in of the season rather than the fourth, as if they imagined the blue moon lodged in the middle of the lunar season rather than tacked on the end, Nigel said.
“It won’t look blue, of course, just like a regular Full Moon – but that’s the reason for the name,” Nigel said.
Partial Lunar Eclipse
The earth’s shadow covers the moon during a partial lunar eclipse
A partial lunar eclipse is set to occur on November 19, when part of the moon will be obscured by the earth.
“The moon moves into the Earth’s shadow, and because the sun isn’t shining on it, you start with a full moon, and it just fades from sight,” Nigel said.
During a full lunar eclipse, when the moon lies in what is known as the Earth’s umbral shadow, a bit of sunlight gets bent around by the earth’s atmosphere.
These slithers of ‘coppery coloured sun’ cast the moon in a dim red. This is known as a blood moon.
However, during a partial lunar eclipse the moon remains its usual colour, as any red glow is drowned out by the glare of the sunlit portion of the moon. It looks more like the moon has had a bite taken out of it.
(Image: European Southern Observatory)
“Towards the end of the year, we get Venus, which is the brightest planet of all,” Nigel said.
“And that’s going to be really bright around Christmas time.
“If people look up at the sky around Christmas time and say: ‘Hey, it’s the Christmas star’ it’s actually the planet Venus.”
Venus is the brightest object in the night sky after the moon and, as the second planet from the sun, this milky-white marble shares a similar positioning in the sky.
From Didsbury to space and back
Nigelwas born in west Didsbury in 1951, but it wouldn’t be until after he moved to Belfast in 1956 – when his father was appointed as a professor at Queen’s University – that he would discover his passion in the stars.
“I was about ten, and I went out and looked up at the sky, I saw stars and wondered what they were, there was a shooting star and I really wanted to know more about it
“I was lucky because my dad was a university professor at the University of Manchester (before Queen’s), in chemistry, so he was a scientist.
“So, my dad told me some things to look out for and my parents were very good, they helped me get my first telescope.”
It didn’t take long for Nigel to start to spot faraway planets and their attendant moons:
“My favourite was Saturn; we’ve all seen pictures of Saturn with the rings going around it
“When you look through a small telescope, it really looks so perfect, it’s like a little three-dimensional model hanging in your telescope.”
Henbest went on to study astrophysics at the university of Leicester, he specialised in radio astronomy and carried out pioneering observations of supernovae at Cambridge.
He wrote his first book, Space Frontiers, in 1978, and has since written some 50 books about the universe.
A decade later he set up production company Pioneer Productions, producing award-winning television programmes about space.
He became Virgin Galactic astronaut #245 in 2009 and awaits his flight date after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 successful voyage into suborbital space in July.
“It’s been exciting for me this week to see astronaut #1, Richard Branson, actually go up,” Nigel said.
With Virgin Galactic set to take six passengers per flight, Henbest is set to be aboard flight 40. With the recent announcement that Virgin Galactic will plan to take passengers to space daily, that may come sooner than expected.
Nigel started writing the Philip’s Stargazing Month-by-Month Guide to the Night Sky in 2005 with long-time collaborator, the late Heather Couper.
(Image: Octopus Books)
The latest 2022 edition is the first Henbest has written alone:
“The idea is if people go outside and it’s a beautiful night and they see stars up there, maybe they see the moon or a bright thing which is probably a planet
“Then, for each month this book has got a chart showing where all the stars are.
“If you see something really bright in the sky and think: ‘oh gosh I wonder what that is,’ you can look at the chart.”
The book also charts astronomical events, and advises on how best to observe them.
“There’s other special events like shooting stars to look out for, or eclipses, and those are flagged up for each month as you go along.”
The main astronomical event of next year will be the partial eclipse of the sun on October 25.
“From Manchester about 20% of the sun will be covered, Nigel said.
It wasn’t until recently that Nigel Henbest, who now lives in North Carolina, returned to Didsbury, after offering to give a speech to the West Didsbury Astronomical Society at Cavendish Community Primary School.
“I volunteered myself to give a talk,” he said.
“It was in a school, as these venues often are, and I did a double-take and thought: ‘Hang on a second, this is the school I went to.’ So that was like closing the circle.”
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