Six in the Six: half a dozen burning questions for Paul Mortfield, astronomy guy, about Sunday’s supermoon

Six in the Six: half a dozen burning questions for Paul Mortfield, astronomy guy, about Sunday's supermoon

This Sunday night, those of us on the northeastern quadrant of the globe will have a chance to observe a rare astronomic double billing: a supermoon and a lunar eclipse. In advance of the big light show (which will start around 8 p.m. and peak around 10 p.m.), we spoke with Paul Mortfield, chair of Richmond Hill’s David Dunlap Observatory, about the best places to take in the action—and whether a supermoon is really so super.

On a scale of somewhat cool to super amazing big deal, where does this Sunday’s supermoon fall? Well, it’s not really so much about the supermoon. That happens every thirteen months. You get a full moon at its closest point to the earth and as a result it appears 14 per cent bigger. That’s been happening for millions of years, but it’s only over the last couple of years that people have started using that term, supermoon. What’s really cool about Sunday night is that it will also be a total lunar eclipse, where the moon goes into the earth’s shadow and goes from being super bright white to this deep-red copper colour. We won’t see that again for another 18 years.

Sounds like the lunar eclipse needs a better agent. Yeah, I think that is true. But at the same time, if the supermoon gets people to get out and look up at the sky, I’ll take that.

There are official supermoon parties scheduled for all over the city, including a sold-out event at the Dunlap Observatory. For those of us who haven’t planned ahead, where’s an ideal place in Toronto to watch this all go down? That’s what’s so great: you don’t have to go anywhere. You can just walk outside your door. You can even look out the window, though it’s nicer to go outside.

Can you share a cool astronomy factoid about this Sunday’s events? I can share a couple. The reason the moon will look red is because the earth has an atmosphere. The sunlight goes through the outer edges of our atmosphere, and that refracts the light. Red light hits our moon, and that’s what we wind up seeing. It’s the same reason we have deep-red sunsets. Another thing is that when we look at the earth’s shadow as the moon moves into it, the shadow is actually curved, which tells us that the object causing the shadow is round. You can tell that to anyone who still says the earth is flat.

Do you remember your first time? Seeing a lunar eclipse, that is. I was a kid, and I tried to take a picture. I had seen this sort of thing in books, but I was amazed at how much better it is to see it with your own eyes. There are a lot of amazing firsts: the first time you see the rings of Saturn through a telescope with your eyeballs, the first time you see the northern lights, the first time you see craters on the moon and feel like you’re there.

The lunar eclipse falls right in the middle of the CSI series finale. What do you say to the person who would rather watch that? What I would say is, here’s an opportunity to step outside, look up at the universe and remember for a moment that we’re standing on a chunk of rock that we call planet Earth, orbiting a star with a satellite orbiting around us. You can get a sense of where we are in the universe, which is pretty amazing.*

[*i.e., more amazing than the last sputter of a series that hasn’t really been good since Grissom left.]


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