The Not-So-Super Harvest Moon

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Some lovely pictures I took of the moon (big white circle) and Jupiter (small white dot beneath) during the autumnal equinox with my digital camera.

September 22, 2010.  It was a Wednesday night, and my second quarter at Medill had just begun.  Earlier that day, I received the astronomy beat for my Health & Sciences reporting class, a beat I dreamed of having for months.

The cosmos had me at hello as soon as my mom taped up a diagram of the solar system in my room when I was little.  Movies like Mars Attacks and Event Horizon and the TV show Star Trek: Voyager only increased my thirst for knowledge of what lies beyond.
But for the first 23 years and 9 months of my life, I really hadn’t done much about it besides check out a couple of picture books when I was in the fourth grade.  So when my name was put on the same line as astronomy, I was ecstatic….

For a moment.  Then I realized I had a ton of research to do.  I had no idea what was going on up there.  That knocked me down a notch, and by the time I was on the Red Line closing in on the Howard stop, I was pretty overwhelmed.

And then at 8:15, my classmate Brian Anderson called.  A great man and an amazing journalist.

“Hey Kevin, I was reading up on the full moon tonight.  It’s a Super Harvest Moon, and it’s not going to happen for another 19 years.  I thought maybe you’d like to check up on it.”

There’s Brian, always looking out for me.  I hadn’t done any work yet, so this seemed like a golden opportunity to get a head start.  When I got home, I started to read about this so-called Super Harvest Moon- a full moon on the night that fall begins.  Indeed, it hadn’t happened since the early ‘90s, and there wasn’t going to be another one until 2029.  Depending on which news release you read, it was going to happen at 10:09 p.m. or 10:17 p.m. Chicago time.

Not only that, but Jupiter would be directly beneath the Moon during the equinox.  And Jupiter hadn’t been this close to the Earth, a mere 388 million miles, since 1963.  In other words, Jupiter was going to be a lot more visible than usual.  How lucky could I be?  The stars were literally aligning.  It was my first few hours on the beat, and already I had a pretty big story…or so I thought.

When 10:09 pm came around, I did what I thought any journalist in my position would do.  I went outside and took pictures of the Super Harvest Moon with Jupiter directly beneath it.  I chronicled the position of the Moon and Jupiter throughout the night.  At 4:09 a.m. or 4:17 a.m. that early morning (depending on which report you read), the moon was to be shining  its brightest.  So I got out of bed and strolled to a clearing to get another few photos.  I went back to bed happy with the knowledge that I did all I could to visually cover this event in the sky.

But when I went to the newsroom the next day, I felt less confident about the story.  After all, there had only been about 150 articles on it the previous night.  So when I pitched it to my instructors, I wasn’t too enthused.  One gave me some ideas on who I should talk to, but I honestly wasn’t feeling up to it.  I didn’t think I could add anything new.  My other instructor just told me it was old news, and that I should drop it and focus on beat research.

So that’s what I did.  I let it go and started reading up on what was new in the universe.  It was a story that I caught a drift of a day or two too late.  Had the quarter started a week earlier, I might have been able to do it.  No, I would have most certainly been on it.

I naively thought that similar events were bound to happen that I could cover.  If this happened on my first night, certainly the Moon would do something spectacular again within the next couple of months, right?  Or a meteor shower, or a comet?  Maybe an eclipse?

Instead, here’s what's happening in the sky from September 23 to December 10 (the end of the quarter, and, coincidentally, my 24th birthday):

  • September 30- Last Quarter Moon
  • October 1- Saturn in conjunction with the sun
  • October 6- Moon at perigree (Moon’s orbit nearest to Earth)
  • October 7- New Moon
  • October 14- First Quarter Moon
  • October 18- Moon at apogee (Moon’s orbit farthest from Earth)
  • October 22- Full Moon
  • November 1- Juno 0.7 degrees South of Moon- occultation (one object passes in front of a smaller one, temporarily obscuring all or part of the background object from view)
  • November 3- Moon at Perigree
  • November 6- New Moon
  • November 13- First Quarter Moon
  • November 15- Moon at apogee
  • November 21- Full Moon
  • November 28- Last Quarter Moon
  • November 29- Juno 0.5 degrees north of Moon, occultation
  • November 30- Moon at perigree

In other words, I had just let the biggest astronomical event visible to the unaided eye this quarter pass me by.

Oh well.  At least I could blog about it.

- blog by Kevin Danna, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

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