Thousands expected to crowd the coast for rise of the supermoon

The supermoon rises above the Cape Palliser Lighthouse. Photo / Mark Gee
The supermoon rises above the Cape Palliser Lighthouse. Photo / Mark Gee

The last time a celestial event of this magnitude happened, the Cold War was just beginning to warm up.

When it happens again next week, those of a superstitious nature will be hoping it doesn't mark the beginning of another unsettling era.

So-called supermoons are the stuff of legend and have been linked to everything from earthquakes to political catastrophe.

On Tuesday at 8.45pm, the largest supermoon for almost 70 years will be visible in the New Zealand night sky. Weather permitting, it will appear as a huge orange globe on the horizon.

It's so rare that in Australia, more than 60,000 people in Sydney have indicated they will be heading down to the city's beaches to watch the supermoon rise above the ocean.

Professor Miroslav Filipovic, an astronomer at Western Sydney University, said supermoons were actually quite regular occurrences, but the coming one was something special.

"Supermoon is not actually not a scientific term, it's been used by astrologers and we astronomers aren't exactly a big fan of these guys," Filipovic said.

"In astronomy the word is 'perigee' and it means the closest point the moon is to Earth."
Roughly every four weeks the moon circles the Earth. However, the orbit is not circular, but elliptical so once a month the moon will be at its closest point to Earth and once a month at its farthest.

Rarely, these rotations fling the satellite so close to the Earth it produces a supermoon. A particularly distant orbit is, naturally, a "micro moon".

This year will have three supermoons. One was last month and another is due in December.

The supermoon over the Statue of Liberty in New York. Photo / AP
The supermoon over the Statue of Liberty in New York. Photo / AP

But what makes Monday's supermoon so special is it will be a full moon and on its closest fly-by since 1948.

A super-dooper-moon, if you like.

What's more, it won't come as close again until 2034. In astronomical terms, the moon will get so close to the Earth it's basically an interplanetary air kiss.

"During a micro moon, the moon is 400,000km from the earth but during this supermoon it will be only 360,000km away," said Filipovic.

"That's 12 to 14 per cent closer or 40,000km, so that's not a small distance.

"It will not be difficult to see with the naked eye, it will be bigger and brighter," he said.

Western Sydney University is one of the only Australian campuses to house its own observatory, the doors of which will be flung open for amateur star gazers to grab a look at the lunar landscape.

Supermoon parties are planned across Australia. Photo / Getty Images
Supermoon parties are planned across Australia. Photo / Getty Images

Meanwhile, supermoon parties are being held across Australia, including at Sydney's Bronte Beach organised by Balmain schoolteacher and children's author Gavin McCormack.

About 50,000 people have decided to watch the supermoon rise out of the Pacific at Mr MCormack's shindig, which McCormack admitted surprised him.

"I invited a few friends around to watch the super moon and suddenly there's 50,000 people going, it's insane."

The author of Are These Your Glasses?, the story of a bullied penguin, said the idea for the event came when he was researching a new kids book about a cow that becomes an astronaut and heads to the moon.

Now's he's had frantic calls from Bronte residents concerned at the dusk deluge of moon gazers, "but the council said it's all good".

Other events included a moon walk from Bondi Beach along the costal cliffs.

McCormack said he remembered gathering around the TV to watch the moon landings and it was an "amazing spectacle".

His lessons that feature the moon and space are the most popular with students.

"We're studying space in my class at the moment and I think it's the unknown, the intangible. When it dawns on them at that every star is a sun and planets go around the sun it's mind boggling, they're gripped."

Dr Michael Brown, an astronomer at Monash University and a member of the Astronomical Society of Australia, said without professional photographic equipment, the best way to appreciate the supermoon was when it was rising and it could be compared to other objects.

"When the moon is close to the horizon and you can see it next to trees it does look bigger than when it's up in the sky in isolation.

"It's nice to appreciate how the size of the moon - it's like its own planet. The dark patches are basalt plains and if you have a telescope you can see the larger craters."

Brown said a mythology had grown up about the supposed powers of the moon, particularly the supermoon.

"There's a long history of people claiming earthquakes follow the alignment of the planets and the position of the moon.

"My favourite is an author from New Zealand who talks about the supermoon's power to cause earthquakes but he also wrote a book on cat palmistry so it's pretty weird," said Brown.

However, Filipovic said when the last moon of this size swept by the Earth - before the term supermoon had been coined - its effect certainly had tongues wagging.

"I remember the stories from 1948, there were a number of events. It was the first fight between the Russians and American in the United Nations. It was a crazy year 1948, the beginning of the Cold War."

Nevertheless, neither said he had time for such tall tales.

"When anyone does statistical analysis [on natural disasters and the moon] there's no correlation at all," said Brown.

That's not to say the supermoon won't have an effect, he said. The closeness of the satellite and the alignment of the sun will lead to higher spring perigean tides as the sea is pulled upwards towards the moon.

The coming of the supermoon would be a good opportunity for those intrigued by celestial beings to come face-to-face with a lunar rarity, said Brown.

But for diehard astronomers, there were more interesting events to study, he said.

"We get excited about supernovas, comets and gravitational waves. Supermoons are nice but they don't get us leaping out of bed.

"For us, they're not particularly super."

- news.com.au

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