Saturday, March 24, 2007


I have written here before, I think, about the game of chasing very young and very old Moons. Here on the island I have an almost unobstructed view of the western horizon at sunset, and a completely unobstructed eastern sea horizon at dawn. Moreover, in winter the sky is seldom overcast. And March is the best time of the year for new Moon spotting, when the Moon's track up the sky is almost vertical to the horizon (not so for old Moons in March). This month we had a shot at a 20 hour-old Moon -- unsuccessful, cloudy -- and 44 and 68 hour-old Moons -- voila! and gorgeous.

The record for seeing a young Moon with the naked-eye is about 15 or 16 hours after new, by a couple of 19th-century English housemaids, as I recall. I forget my own record, but it's in the low 20s. Any Moon less than 30 hours old is breathtakingly thin.

If you want to try the sport, the invaluable resource is Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar -- no skywatcher should be without it.

Our house here is called Starlight House, because a dream of clear dark skies was a big part of what brought us here, and because the film Frankie Starlight paid for it. Alas, as I said before, the island has begun to surrender itself to environmentally insensitive artificial lighting. The zodiacal light (the faint reflection of sunlight off meteoric dust in the plane of the Solar System) becomes increasingly difficult to see. The Double Cluster in Perseus and the Beehive in Cancer used to jump out at you; now one has to go looking for them. Even the winter Milky Way is fading. Someday people will be taking cruises to remote parts of the Pacific Ocean for the sole purpose of seeing the night sky as it was known to our ancestors.

But for the moment, new and old Moon spotting is still a viable activity. It's not just a thin crescent that is the object of the sport. It is placing one's self attentively, discreetly, just offstage, at the magical interface of day and night, when the turning Earth slips into the wings to change her costume.

(Watercolor by Galen Pejeau. Click to enlarge.)