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December’s full moon, also known as the “cold moon,” will shine bright in the night sky this Wednesday, peaking at 11:08 p.m. ET.
Jupiter, Saturn and Mars will also be visible in the night sky Wednesday, with an extraordinarily rare phenomenon, known as a lunar occultation of Mars, set to happen around the moon’s peak fullness, according to EarthSky.
At this point, the red planet will disappear behind the moon for a short period of time. This highly unusual event will be visible in parts of the Americas, Europe and Northern Africa.
December 7 also marks the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission launch — the last time humans set foot on the moon. This year’s cold moon, then, offers viewers both the chance to enjoy a lunar spectacle and reflect on the monumental space exploration humanity has achieved.
“When you look up at the moon, you should appreciate that it’s not only beautiful … but that it’s a very scientifically important object,” said Dr. Noah Petro, chief of NASA’s planetary geology, geophysics and geochemistry lab.
“There is no other planet in our solar system that has a moon quite like ours. It is unique in many, many ways, and we, as a society, the whole of humanity, are very fortunate to have it literally in our backyard.”
The Mohawk people deemed the December full moon “tsothohrha,” or time of cold — in reference to the frigid weather it would usually accompany, according to the Western Washington Planetarium site. Like many other Native American tribes, the Mohawks kept track of the months by giving a name to each full moon.
This full moon has also been known as the “moon before Yule” in Europe, to mark the Yuletide festival, and as the “long night moon” by the Mohicans, due to its proximity to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, which falls on December 21 this year, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
The full moon will make its way across the sky starting at sunset. And with the sun going down earlier in the Northern Hemisphere, there is a longer time period for those looking to catch sight of the lunar event. Anywhere with a clear view of the sky will suffice, Petro said, though for best viewing, he recommends finding an area free from tall buildings and trees.
“The day before and a day after, the moon will still appear full to the naked eye,” Petro said. “So, if it’s cloudy on the seventh, you can try again on the eighth.”
The forecast for Wednesday evening will be partly cloudy skies in New York City, mostly clear skies in Los Angeles and mostly cloudy skies in Chicago, according to Allison Chinchar, CNN meteorologist.
Those in the Southern Hemisphere will get the same view of the full moon during nighttime hours, although the orientation will be flipped, as always.
Exploring the moon
The Apollo 17 spaceflight launched on December 7, 1972. It was the final mission of NASA’s Apollo program and brought the number of humans who have walked on the moon to a grand total of 12. The three crew members, Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, returned to Earth on December 19 after a 12-day mission.
Today, NASA has successfully kicked off its Artemis program, which aims to establish the first lunar outpost and further explore the moon. The Artemis I mission launched November 16, sending the uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a 25.5-day journey to circumnavigate the moon, with an expected return date of December 11, four days after the full moon.
The space agency hopes further lunar discoveries will in turn lead to the first human setting foot on Mars.
“(The moon) is a very important extension of our own planet that we’ve had the fortune of having visited with humans … and that we’re preparing to return to with both robotic and crewed explorers,” Petro said.
“I would hope that people take a moment to pause and look up and think, ‘wow, how fortunate we are as a planet to have this moon with us.’”
Last celestial events of the year
The cold moon marks this year’s last full moon event, but December’s skies will also feature two more meteor showers. Sky gazers won’t want to miss the vibrant Geminids, which peak on December 14 — and the Ursids swiftly follow and are set to peak on December 22, according to EarthSky’s 2022 meteor shower guide.