Moon is star in solstice this year

Posted: Monday, December 20, 1999

This year, the moon is horning in on the sun's deal.

For thousands of years people have celebrated the winter solstice for the ``rebirth'' of the sun. But this year will be special for moonlight, too.

The northern hemisphere's winter solstice will occur at 10:44 p.m. Alaska time on Tuesday, Dec. 21. For the first time since 1866, a full moon will cross the northern sky at about the same time as the solstice. Actually, it's a 99 percent full moon, but you won't notice the difference.

And because the moon, in its elliptical orbit, also will be as close as it can be to the Earth, it will look larger than usual.

It's rare for a full moon and the moon's closest position to Earth to occur at the same time, said Don Greenberg, professor of physics and mathematics at the University of Alaska Southeast.

In fact, the moon will never again be this close to the Earth because the moon is gradually moving away from our planet. Scientists discovered that by timing laser beams sent to a reflector astronauts left on the moon, Greenberg said.

And because the sun also is close to the Earth this time of year - contrary to the common impression - its reflected light will make the full moon brighter than usual. The closeness of the sun and the moon to Earth will cause extreme tides, as well.

``These are the kinds of things that make people excited,'' said Michael Orelove, a volunteer at the Marie Drake Planetarium. ``So, are you going to guarantee a clear sky?''

Of course, whether Juneau residents can enjoy the lunar phenomenon depends on the clouds. The National Weather Service predicts an 80 percent chance of rain on the solstice.

The Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice is when the sun is directly overhead at the southernmost point of the Earth for the year - at about the latitude of Brazil, Madagascar and Australia. The Southern Hemisphere, angled toward the sun, will enjoy the summer solstice.

The day of the winter solstice marks the lowest arc of the sun on the horizon and the least amount of daylight for the year. On Tuesday, the sun will rise in Juneau at 8:44 a.m. and set at 3:07 p.m., according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.

But on Wednesday, Dec. 22, we'll bask in two more minutes of daylight. So the winter solstice is celebrated as the harbinger of returning sunlight and the promise of spring.

``My husband and I try to do a beach fire,'' said local resident Salty Hanes. ``We like to go outside and definitely mark the occasion.''

She also takes flowers to friends that day and wishes them a happy solstice.

``A lot of people don't know it's happening. It's so important living in the North. I'm very aware when the sun doesn't get higher than Mount Jumbo,'' she said.

Many ancient cultures celebrated solstices. So how did they know when to party?

``It's really quite simple,'' said Scot Tiernan, a planetarium volunteer. ``You put a stick in the ground and notice the shadows.''

The ancients saw that the shadow lengthened, then stopped and reversed direction, Tiernan said. The word solstice means ``standing-still sun.''

Juneau resident Ron Reed, who has an interest in astronomy and astrology, said he marks the solstice with some kind of minor celebration, such as carrying sage around his house in a purification ceremony.

He didn't think of it this way, but he's following in some old footsteps. Northern Europeans celebrated by burning logs and placing mistletoe around the fire, to protect the home and its inhabitants from adversity.

``I think a lot of people who are more Earth-centered and interested in the foundations of spirituality have an interest in it as a marker of a sacred time for many of the world's more natural religions,'' Reed said.

Others look to the solstice for a psychological boost, he said, even though the daylight grows very gradually.

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