Christmas Full Cold Moon and winter solstice: Bright nights, longer days

Watching the sky for Santa this Christmas, night gazers may see that sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer flying across the last (nearly) full moon of the season.

Moon image courtesy NASA Goddard.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18, 2015 – An exciting happening in our Christmas night sky is a rare full moon. We have to look back to 1977 for the last time a full moon shone bright on Christmas. For sky gazers the gift of a full lunar display on Christmas is priceless.

Because our sky watchers like to do so, this last full moon of this year is called the Full Cold Moon because it occurs during the beginning of winter. The moon’s peak this year will occur at 6:11 a.m. EST.

This rare event won’t happen again until 2034. That’s a long time to wait and with the predicted warmer weather this Christmas, it’s a perfect opportunity to light an evening yule fire, break out the marshmallows and stare up to a clear sky.

Christmas Eve’s moon will be oh so close to being full providing a wonderful light to guide Santa on his rounds.  When you look up and see that streak across the moon, you may find yourself wondering if it is the jolly elf and his reindeers or NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission spacecraft. The LRO mission is orbiting the Earth’s moon collecting a treasure trove of data that has helped scientist better understand our moon and our relationship to it.

“As we look at the moon on such an occasion, it’s worth remembering that the moon is more than just a celestial neighbor,” said John Keller, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The geologic history of the moon and Earth are intimately tied together such that the Earth would be a dramatically different planet without the moon.”

With the holiday quickly approaching, does it seem that there is just not enough time in the day? During the winter solstice month of December it takes the Earth about 90 seconds longer than the normal 24-hour period to revolve.

What will you do with all that extra time?

The winter solstice happens on Dec. 22 at 4:48 Universal Time, or Dec. 21 at 10:48 CST in North America and during the month, if we count the solar day, from the precise moment the sun reaches its highest apex from one day to the next.

Another interesting phenomenon is that during December, though days seem to rush by quicker and daylight hours seems to be lessening, the days are at their longest around the world. Why? Because during the December solstice period the Earth’s perihelion, or its closest point to the sun, comes in early January. The closer our planet is to its star, the faster it moves, but it is also traveling through space just a little bit longer, hence the extra minute-and-a-half to our day.

Our days are lengthening ever so much with the Northern Hemisphere’s earliest sunset preceding the winter solstice date and the latest sunrise happening after the December winter solstice.

And if you go south of the equator, it all flips and the the year’s earliest sunrise precedes the December summer solstice, and the year’s latest sunset comes after the December summer solstice.

Although the solstice brings the shortest/longest period of daylight, the earliest sunset/sunrise always comes before the solstice, and latest sunrise/sunset always comes afterwards.



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