Editor’s Note: Oppositions and Occultations

As with many Earthlings who are not astronomers, I’m fairly oblivious to the regular drama occurring overhead. If I happen to catch an astronomical headline it interests me the same way headlines about the Royals do (the English ones, not the Kansas City ones). I’ve also been known to have moon calendars on my Christmas list year-after-year. Then there is the fascinating and thought-provoking astronomical vocabulary: “opposition,” for example, and “occultation.” 

The Red Planet is in “opposition” right now, so-called because Mars and the Sun are on opposite sides of the sky, appearing as if the Earth is between them, with Mars rising in the east as the sun sets and vice versa. This is also happening during Mars’ perigee, or a close approach to Earth – this one within 38.6 million miles of Earth, according to NASA – making the Red Planet appear at its biggest and brightest.

The official opposition happened Dec. 8 but if you missed it, that’s OK because Mars will reportedly look much larger than it usually does until about mid-December – assuming it’s not covered by one of those intense martian dust storms that cover continent-sized areas and last for weeks. (Those sound much like the dust storms of South Dakota where we lived for eight years, but a comparison between the Mount Rushmore State and the Red Planet is another story for another time.)

Before Mars became so big and bold, another phenomenon occurred: the moon blocked Mars on Dec. 7 for 31 minutes, otherwise known as “occultation”. The moon was also full when it occulted Mars. This Cold Moon or Long Nights Moon or Moon before the Yule became full on Dec. 7 at 10:08 pm CT. To the casual stargazer, it would have appeared full the night before and after its peak.

It’s this moon that prompted my small, astronomical journey. It jarred me from sleep this week by reaching its lunar light through our bedroom windows. I had thought we accidentally kept the Christmas lights on. 

This is the last full moon of 2022, and worth noting. As for the martian disk? It’s the future site of human habitation apparently, so we may want to keep our eyes on it.