Science

Beaver Moon: November’s celestial spectacle lights up the winter sky

A passenger plane flies before the beaver moonrise. The moon’s nickname ‘beaver’, inherited from Native American tradition, corresponds to the time of year when beavers are most active.
Image credit: AFP

As the sunlight wanes in November, it’s time for winter nights to shine—literally. Stargazers can view the penultimate full moon of the year earlier this week, commonly known as the “Beaver Moon,” against a brilliant backdrop of stars and planets.

The November Beaver Moon appeared around 4:16 a.m. ET on Monday; will appear almost full over the next few days as it begins to subside. The moon can be seen near Jupiter, appearing a little larger and brighter in the western sky this month as Earth moves between the Sun and Jupiter. Venus, in the eastern sky, and Saturn, near Aquarius, Pisces and Capricorn, will also be visible.

The moon also shines against a brighter night sky during this time of year. In general, according to EarthSky, winter stars should also appear brighter due to the position of the night sky. The sky now faces the outskirts of the Milky Way (as opposed to the center of the galaxy like in the summer), looking towards our spiral arm of the galaxy and its enormous stars. The night sky should appear sharper and clearer than in summer, clouds permitting.

Why is it called the ‘beaver moon’?

The moon’s nickname “beaver”, inherited from Native American tradition, corresponds to the time of year when beavers are most active. The light of the full moon helps guide nocturnal animals to build and repair prey and dens before entering hibernation. City dwellers in Washington, D.C., may witness at least one beaver busy munching on cherry trees near the Jefferson Memorial in recent weeks.

The moon is also sometimes known as the “frost moon” because frost and first snowfall usually begin at this time of year, particularly in northeastern North America. In pagan tradition, it is known as the “mourning moon” and symbolizes leaving past troubles behind and looking forward to a new season and year.

What is the best time to see the moon?

The best time to see the moon is when it is low on the horizon, such as when the moon rises or sets. Here, the moon can appear in vibrant colors, such as orange or yellow, due to the scattering of light in our atmosphere, in the same way we see various colors in sunrises and sunsets.

When the moon is lower on the horizon, the path from the moon to Earth becomes longer. Moonlight then has the ability to impact more molecules in the air. Air molecules scatter shorter wavelengths of blue and violet from our vision, but allow longer wavelengths of orange and red to pass more freely to the ground.

Is the moon bigger on the horizon?

The moon may also appear larger when it is closer to the horizon, but don’t be fooled: it’s an illusion. To debunk the myth yourself, take a photo of the full moon when it is near the horizon and when it is higher in the sky on the same night and using the same zoom settings. The diameters of the moon in both photos should be more or less the same.

The phenomenon, which NASA calls the Lunar Illusion, is a trick our eyes and brains play on us that makes the Moon appear larger as it rises and sets. The effect has been observed for thousands of years, even in astronauts in orbit. Some say our brains don’t understand that the Moon’s distance doesn’t change on a given night or that foreground objects can fool us, but NASA says there’s no definitive explanation.

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