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Astro Bob: Full Wolf Moon turns night into day

On Friday night, Jan. 6, let the full moon be your headlamp.

Almost full moon
A nearly full moon finds an open portal in tree branches shortly after sunset on Thursday evening, Jan. 5.
Contributed / Bob King
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After skiing in the woods Thursday night (Jan. 5) under the almost-full moon, I came home pink-cheeked and a little more alive. Cold and moonlight are the perfect mix to sharpen the senses and make you feel like a kid again. It can also be a time for self-reflection. Honestly, I can't wait to get back out there again. Tonight we'll see a full moon. Or to be precise, the Full Wolf Moon.

The name is appropriate because wolves are more active in winter's colder temperatures. It's also mating season. People used to think wolves howled from hunger, but that's not true. They howl to find each other and stay in touch when spread out during the hunt. The call is also used to mark territory. A wolf separated from the pack even has its own "lonesome howl," a shortened version of the standard cry.

Full wolf moon
If you hear wolves howling during a full moon it may be coincidental, but the thrill of the experience is the same.
Contributed / Bob King illustration

Wolves don't howl at the moon either. At least there's no evidence for it. They bay whether it shines or not, but I like to imagine them staring at it with a similar interest and curiosity. At least one species howls at that distant rocky orb though. No surprise, it's us!

Feel free to howl all you like during Friday night's full moon. The moment of greatest fullness occurs at 5:07 p.m. Central Time, with the moon rising around the time of sunset or a bit earlier. From Duluth, Minnesota it winks over the northeastern horizon at 4:03 p.m., 33 minutes before the sun goes down in the west. Use the moonrise calculator at www.timeanddate.com/moon/ to find your local moonrise time so you don't miss one of nature's endless miracles.

Recently, we talked about the Earth's elliptical orbit , which causes its distance and speed to change across the year. It also affects the apparent size of the sun, making it appear bigger in January when we're closer and smaller in July when we're farther away. Since it orbits the Earth in an ellipse the same is true for the moon.

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On Friday, the moon will be very close to apogee, its maximum distance from us, and appear slightly smaller than usual. For fun, people have started calling these smaller-than-normal full moons micromoons. A micromoon is the opposite of a supermoon, which occurs at perigee, the time when the moon is closest to Earth.

Ski moon
The 13-day-old moon lights up a local ski trail on Thursday night, Jan. 5. Orion appears at center.
Contributed / Bob King

Micromoon or not, the Full Wolf Moon shines high in the sky from the constellation Gemini the Twins and will appear exceptionally bright. This is especially true if you're out late (after 10 p.m. local time) when it shines highest. If you have snow on the ground, moonlight will be strong enough to easily see color. I wear a jade-and-coral colored ski jacket. Both hues were positively vivid in last night's moonlight.

Night into day
The moon shines high in winter because it's opposite the sun and occupies the same spot the sun will in the coming summer.
Contributed / Bob King

The moon shines so high in winter because it's directly opposite the sun, which is very low in the sky this time of year. That opposite point lies in Gemini, the same place the sun will occupy this July. Friday night's moon foreshadows the coming summer, when you'll be slapping mosquitoes and wishing for cooler temperatures.

The moon, planets and sun circle around the sky on the same path or "highway" called the ecliptic, an extension of the plane of Earth's orbit across the sky. All these bodies lie in the same plane (give or take), and from our perspective travel on or near this great circle.

Full moon rides high
The moon will shine unusually high in the sky tonight because it's tilted orbit takes it more than 4° north (above) the ecliptic.
Contributed / Bob King

However, the moon's something of an exception. Its orbit around Earth is tilted about 5°. During the month, it weaves up and down along the ecliptic, at times dipping below and rising above it. Right now, it happens to be "riding high" more than 4° above the ecliptic. This gives the moon an altitude boost, so it's even higher in the sky and a bit brighter, helping to compensate for its micromoon status.

From Duluth, the Full Wolf Moon will stand almost 70° high at around 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning (Jan. 7). From Miami, it's almost exactly overhead at 12:43 a.m. local time. Winter's just fine with me, but I'd love to be there on a beach, back to the sand, moonbeams pouring down.

Read more from Astro Bob
Although a full moon will interfere, Comet ZTF will pass right next to one of the sky's brightest stars Sunday night.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
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