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Follow the road to Harvest Moon: Fred Schaaf's Sky Watch
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Follow the road to Harvest Moon: Fred Schaaf's Sky Watch

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On Wednesday night the first thin sliver of the moon will be visible very low in the west before evening twilight ends. Then, the slowly widening, brightening moon will spend the next two weeks passing by four bright planets and ending up full — indeed, as the most important of all full moons. That is, of course, Harvest Moon.

Our two-week journey to Harvest Moon is scenic in its own right. But the Harvest Moon has very special visual aspects to it. And this moon is richer in myth and legend than any other. At 8:52 p.m. Monday, the moon was at its New phase. Tuesday, the wire-thin lunar crescent will set too soon after sunset to see. Even Wednesday (Sept.8), the moon will appear very low in dusk and therefore difficult to see. A special attraction Wednesday will be the bright speck of the planet Mercury about half the width of your fist at arm’s length to the lower left of the moon. But Mercury will be so low, it’ll appear just above the west horizon a mere 40 minutes after sunset.

The first night that the moon will be pretty easy to see is Thursday. The still-thin moon will make an impressive pairing with the brightest planet, Venus, not far to the lower left of the moon.

Next Monday (Sept. 13), the moon will appear at its first-quarter phase, exactly half-lit in the southeast daytime sky at precisely 4:39 p.m. By Thursday (Sept. 16), the gibbous moon (about two-thirds lit) will sit well to the lower right of the bright-ish dot that is Saturn. That Friday, the moon will be similarly placed with regard to Jupiter, the second-brightest planet of all planets.

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On Wednesday, Sept. 15, the International Space Station will be very bright as it makes an arc above the moon, Saturn and Jupiter. At about 8:12:35 p.m., the ISS will pass its nearest above the moon. By 8:13:10 p.m., the ISS will be closest above Saturn. Last but not least, at 8:13:35 p.m., the space station will glide above Jupiter.

Harvest Moon is usually defined as the full moon closest to the autumn equinox. Most months of the year, the moon rises almost an hour later each night around full. But around full moon in September at fairly high latitudes (like New Jersey’s, 40° North), the moon rises at almost the same time for several nights in a row. Any full moon rises around sunset. Thus, Harvest Moon rises around sunset for several days, and its bright light allows farmers to keep picking crops well into the evening.

Why does the Harvest Moon rise at nearly the same time on successive nights? Because the zodiac, the band of constellations in which the moon travels, makes its shallowest angle with respect to the east horizon at nightfall during this time of year.

The moon always tends to look big — due to “the moon illusion” — when it is down near the horizon. The shallow path of the Harvest Moon keeps it near the horizon for a long time and therefore looking big for quite a while. Another reason that people see the Harvest Moon more than most full moons is that September is, on an average, the least cloudy time of year in much of the U.S.

There is plenty of legend about the Harvest Moon in both Native American and European culture, but I’m especially fond of the huge presence of the Harvest Moon is Chinese and Japanese cultures. In that distinctive Japanese poetry called haiku, the special name for Harvest Moon is “famous moon.”

But it’s in Chinese culture that the Harvest Moon plays a central role in what is often said to be the most joyful of all Chinese holidays — “the Mid-Autumn Festival,” though by our standards it occurs at the start of autumn. It features mooncakes, threads that connect lovers and joyful games.

Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at

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