August 8, 2014

Sunday’s super supermoon lights up our lives, and conversations

Sunday’s full moon will be unusually BIG. Sure we have others this year. But this one will be the super-est of them all. A “super-duper” supermoon, you might say. Here’s how it happens and how to photograph it.

Look. Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane.

It’s supermoon!


Heads up, Kansas City. (Literally.) Sunday’s full moon will be unusually BIG. Sure, we had a supermoon on July 12, and another is coming Sept. 9. But Sunday’s will be the super-est of them all. A “super-duper” supermoon, you might say. (See it best at sunset, when it will glow on the


A supermoon is a moon that waxes full within 24 hours of orbiting closest to Earth, said Barbara Anthony-Twarog, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas. Since supermoons occur roughly 14 months apart, most years will have just one. 2014 gets three.

After this year’s trifecta, we won’t see another supermoon until Sept. 28, 2015. After that: Nov. 14, 2016.

There is a lot of hoopla surrounding the current crop of supermoons. Around the world people are setting their alarms, grabbing their cameras, going over the moon about it on Facebook.

You’d think something had changed. Not really.

“But it is unusual,” said Dave Hudgins, a spokesman for the Astronomical Society of Kansas City and an astronomy professor at Rockhurst University. “Once in a while you would have (no supermoons). Then more commonly you would have one, or less commonly two and much less commonly three.”

But it’s not as if it’s never happened before, or that this year’s three supermoons are going to cause a tsunami.

So why are we more excited now than in years past? If anything, it is a triumph of marketing. It’s as if the moon got a new agent. It’s definitely having its moment in the sun.

Anthony-Twarog first heard the term “supermoon” several years ago. It didn’t exist in 1981 when she was getting her doctorate in astronomy from Yale.

“It seems similar to me to the terminology of blue moon,” she said. (That’s the layman’s term for the second full moon in a single month). “Neither are scientific. But they’re perfect for the Internet. And if it spreads interest in the sky, then I don’t think anyone has any objection. There’s

nothing incorrect about it.”

Astronomers call this spot in the orbit “perigee.” The normal distance to the moon is about 238,000 miles. But the supermoon will be closer to the Earth by about 17,000 miles, Anthony-Twarog said, or a scant reach-out-and-touch-it 221,000 miles


So it will appear larger — 14 percent larger than when the moon is farthest from Earth.

“The main thing is just to get out there and enjoy a bigger, brighter moon,” she said.

And why not? We love the moon. No, it’s not a planet as Royals broadcaster Rex Hudler mistakenly called it in a broadcast this spring. It’s better. Personal. It lights up the night sky and controls the tides.

And let’s face it, world, it belongs to the good ol’ U.S. of A. July was the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon. And we’ve not only flown to it and walked on it, we’ve planted our flag on it, driven a car on it, brought back rocks from it, even hit a golf ball on it.

We’ll say it: If the moon really was made of cheese, it would be American cheese.

We’re always putting the moon in songs and poems and movies. Case in point: Woody Allen’s latest film, “Magic in the Moonlight,” starring Emma Stone and Colin Firth, arrives in KC Friday.

William Trowbridge of Lee’s Summit, the poet laureate of Missouri, said the relationship between moon and man is magical and mysterious.

“It’s a rather dramatic presence at night,” he said. “Since people crawled out of the caves there has been a sense of mystery and power about it. There are all sorts of positive associations, such as love. It’s kind of like turning the lights down for romance. The sun has gone away, and

you have this lovely iridescent light that brightens up the landscape.”

On the other hand, the moon also is said to stir passions of a more sinister variety.

Wolves howl at the moon, and werewolves are said to come out during a full moon. The word “lunacy” comes from “luna,” which is Latin for moon.

“Back in the Middle Ages, people used to believe that the moon was the location of the dividing line between earthly and heavenly things,” Trowbridge said. “That’s where we get the word sublunary, which literally means “under the moon.”

So make a date with the moon on Sunday. And remember. When you look up in the sky, you won’t just be seeing a regular moon.

This … is a supermoon!

To reach James A. Fussell, call (816) 234-4460, or email


Are you planning to photograph the supermoon? Share your shots on

But first, Kansas City Star staff photographer John Sleezer has a few tips:

1. Plan for the shot by determining where the moon will rise on the horizon. Check it out the night before or use websites and apps. Sunday’s moonrise is at 8:09 p.m. — that’s when it will look the biggest.

2. Stabilize your camera. A tripod is best, but you can wad up a blanket or jacket on a wall or chair and rest the camera on that.

3. Take the camera off auto exposure. Start with ISO 200, shutter speed 1/250th of a second, and F8. Conditions, including ambient light, may require changes.

4. Have something in the foreground, such as a building, tree or person, to make the picture more interesting and give the moon scale.

5. If using a cellphone or point-and-shoot, hold the lens up to the eyepiece of a telescope or binoculars. If it’s stable enough, it can work.

6. Later in the evening as the moon is overhead, it appears smaller. It’s more difficult to find objects for your foreground. However, this is the time when a photograph can record more detail on the moon’s surface. If you want a close-up of a big moon high in the night sky, seek out a dark location away from the city lights. Use a long telephoto lens, 600mm or more on a DSLR camera (digital single lens relfex), and tripod.

Exposure tips:

The important thing is to take control of the exposure by switching to manual control of the camera, not automatic. Automatic camera settings may take into account the surrounding dark area of the night sky and overexpose the image, leaving no detail in the highlights: a giant white disk with no detail. A good place to start is setting the camera to daylight color balance. As the moon is rising it will appear more yellow because of the thick atmosphere in front of it; as it rises the moon becomes whiter.

Start with an ISO setting of 200 and plan to go a little higher if needed. A shutter speed of around 1/250th of a second is a good starting point.

The moon is moving pretty fast in the sky, so long exposures will look blurry. F/8 is also a good place to start as an F-stop setting on the lens. There are factors that will necessitate changing these settings in every situation. Light clouds means higher ISO settings or slower shutter speeds or changing the F-stop to F/5.6 or F/4 on the lens. If the sun is still up when the moon is rising and the foreground is still illuminated by the sun, then the exposure needs to be one that balances the foreground and the moon. Experimenting is the key; no one exposure fits all situations.

Advanced thoughts:

To get a really big moon in your photo, you need a really long lens on a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera; 600mm lenses with 1.4x or 2x extenders that increase them to 850mm or 1200mm can give dramatic images. Shorter lenses of 300mm or 70-200mm zoom lenses can work well when the moon is first rising and you can place something in the foreground to help compose the picture.














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