Brilliant nights! When a big moon beams over the snow-covered forest and Orion raises his club in the south I don’t care how cold it gets. By the time the sky cleared last night, the nearly full moon was already at its highest. Light bouncing off rooftop drifts and snow piled high across fields and lawns lit up the very air.
Winter nights give us the brightest gibbous and full moons because the moon occupies the same high place in the sky that the sun does in summer. Its light is direct and little sullied by atmospheric dust and water vapor. Add in snow and you can read a newspaper at midnight.
Tonight the moon will cross through the northern half of the Hyades (HI-uh-deez), the nearest star cluster to Earth located 153 light years away in the direction of the constellation Taurus the Bull. Skywatchers living at mid-northern latitudes won’t see any of its bright members get occulted or covered by the moon, but it’ll be cool to see our satellite nestled in the little group with a pair of binoculars.
The bright orange giant star Aldebaran sure looks like a Hyades star, but it’s a poser. Located more than twice as close to Earth at 65 light years Aldebaran’s a foreground star that just happens to neatly line up with the star cluster. Take a look tonight in binoculars around 5-6 p.m. and then again around 9 and you’ll easily see how much the moon has traveled “across the cluster” as it orbits the Earth.
I had fun before going numb last night taking photos of scenes in moonlight. It’s crazy how bright a snowy landscape is – at ISO 800 you can get away with exposure times of just a few seconds. All you need is a tripod and a point and shoot camera.