Saturn and the Super Moon

Where were you on Saturday March 19, when the Super Moon occurred? Sounds kind of ominous doesn’t it?

So, what is a super moon?

As the moon orbits Earth, its path is not a perfect circle, but more elliptical in nature.

When the moon is at its closest point to Earth (called the perigee) it is 50,000 km closer to us than when it is furthest from Earth (its apogee). This makes the moon 14 percent larger and 50 percent brighter.

This occurrence of the moon being full and being its closest to Earth at the same time happens only every 18 years, so it is a fairly rare event.

This effect is most noticeable as the moon is just clearing the horizon, especially with a foreground object like a tree or building in front of your view. I like to think the difference is visible, though it is minor.

I headed up to the Grey Mountain Lookout Point on Saturday evening and prepared to be blinded by this rare spectacle.

For an astronomer, the full moon is the worst time to observe the moon. When the moon is in a partial phase, the view is much better because the greatest detail to be seen is on the terminator line – the line between the dark and the illuminated sides.

As the moon climbed off the horizon, it was sitting in a cloud bank. What rotten luck. Patiently, I waited until the moon cleared the horizon and the thin cloud bank. I was soon rewarded as the moon cleared the horizon and slid behind a small cluster of trees.

Yes the view was great; the moon was big and bright. It illuminated the whole observing site and the valley below, making it a surreal sight.

I quickly framed a couple of trees in front of the full moon and began hunting for the optimal camera settings, to get the best possible shot. The moon was an off-white grey colour and, surprisingly, showed a fair amount of detail.

Using a Canon 50D and a Sigma 70-300mm lens, I checked my shot using “live view”.

What live view lets you do is to look at the picture you are about to take, and then see your picture magnified five or 10 times normal size.

You can then focus as you would normally, and then take the picture. This makes achieving critical high-power focus a snap. As an added bonus, if you ever blow your picture up to an 8×11-inch print the picture still holds together extremely well.

I set my live view focus on the moon, not the trees in the foreground of the picture. The results were impressive, considering that this is not an expensive telephoto lens at only $350.

Most modern DSLR cameras have this function, and I would strongly recommend getting very comfortable using live view, as it make for truly wonderful pictures, night or day.

The time is midnight, and it has been fun and all that, but it is -18 Celsius, and the wind does make it a bit brisk. I already have one casualty of the evening, as my little SLR froze up, and is therefore out of commission.

To the east of the moon rested the real jewel of the evening. Nestled in the full moon’s glow was a dim orb that seemed to be getting brighter as it rose higher off the horizon, keeping a relatively parallel course with the moon.

I moved the telescope over and adjusted the focus. It was Saturn. What an amazing sight. The rings were tilted, and only one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, was visible. The others were washed out by the moonlight.

On April 3, Saturn will be at opposition, which means that it rises at sunset and can be found due south around midnight. Saturn will rise higher each evening as spring arrives: a visitor that is welcomed by all astronomers.

There are moons, rings, shadows and even spots. What a fun planet for any amateur astronomer!

March has been a busy month for astronomy with Jupiter departing from the night sky, Saturn arriving, Aurora and, of course, the Super Moon.

The month of April is also a busy one in those amazing Yukon Night Skies. Take some time, a coffee, a copy of Sky News magazine, your favourite binoculars or telescope, and go see for yourself.

Better yet, come on up to Grey Mountain Lookout Point on a Saturday night and join us for a look with the telescopes.

Clear Skies!

James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at [email protected]. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.

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