Tonight's 'super snow moon' will be the biggest and one of the brightest full moons of 2019. Here's why.

Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty ImagesA jet flies in front of February’s supermoon, also called a ‘super snow moon.’
  • The full moon on Tuesday – also called the “snow moon” – will be the biggest and one of the brightest of 2019.
  • The moon will look significantly larger than normal because it will be near its closest distance to Earth during its orbit around the planet.
  • February’s “supermoon,” or “perigean” moon, will be the second of three in a row.

You’re not hallucinating: Yes, the moon looks brighter than normal, and yes, it looks bigger too.

But Tuesday evening will bring the real show: what astronomers at NASA call a “perigean” moon, or “supermoon.” The event will coincide with a full moon that’s often referred to as a “snow moon” or “hunger moon.”

It’s not an unusual event in the context of our human existence on Earth – 12 to 14 full moons occur each year, and about one-fourth of these are larger and brighter than normal, hence the term “supermoon.”

But that doesn’t make this full moon any less fantastic to look at on a crisp winter evening, especially ahead of humanity’s 50th anniversary of landing men on the moon, the NASA scientist Mitzi Adams said in a recent blog post.

“As NASA and its commercial and international partners plan to return the moon over the next decade with a long-term continued presence, the list of moon walkers will surely include women, as well,” Adams said.

Why the ‘super snow moon’ will be so big and so bright

Supermoon graphicNASA/JPL-CaltechIt’s nearly impossible to compare the apparent size of the supermoon with that of a micromoon from memory, but when seen side by side as in this graphic, it becomes clear.

February’s full moon is sometimes referred to by its Native American or traditional name, the “snow moon.” That’s because it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, when snow often blankets the ground.

This February, the snow moon also happens to be a supermoon.

A supermoon (a term that some astronomers don’t care for) happens because the moon’s distance from Earth varies during its orbit around our planet. That orbit is not perfectly circular – it has a slightly elliptical or oval shape – leading to the variation.

On average, the moon is 238,856 miles from Earth. But it can creep as close as roughly 221,500 miles and as far as 252,700 miles. That’s a minimum-maximum difference of 31,200 miles. (These distances are calculated based on laser-ranging measurements that use reflectors left on the moon’s surface by Apollo astronauts.)

Supermoons occur when we get a full moon near or at the point when the moon’s orbit is closest to Earth, also called the perigee of its orbit. For this reason, supermoons are also known as perigee or perigean moons, though the full technical term is “perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system.”

Compared with a full moon at apogee – its farthest point in orbit around Earth, when “micromoons” occur – a supermoon looks about 14% bigger and 30% brighter.

Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with The Virtual Telescope Project, told Business Insider that this month’s supermoon “will appear about 7% bigger and a bit brighter” than an average full moon.

“These are not really obvious variations, but they add charm to the event, a precious opportunity to admire our natural satellite in the night sky context, an increasingly overlooked and forgotten landscape,” Masi, who is hosting a live webcast of the supermoon, wrote in an email.

There’s no universally agreed-upon definition of a supermoon. However, one common description is any full moon that happens within about 90% of perigee, or within roughly 223,000 miles of Earth.

Read more:
There is a ‘dark side’ of the moon, but you are probably using the term incorrectly

February’s “super snow moon” will occur six hours after a perigee distance of 221,681 miles, according to NASA. That would make it not only the second of three supermoons in a row, but the largest and one of the brightest full moons of the year.

That’s because this distance is 362 miles closer than the supermoon we saw on January 21, according to Adams. It will also be about 1,627 miles closer than the next supermoon, on March 19.

The last time Earth saw three supermoons for three full moons in a row was in early 2018.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the February full moon as the brightest of 2019. The year’s brightest full moon was in January.

Kevin Loria contributed reporting to a previous version of this article.

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