I awoke at 6:30 a.m. one week ago (Saturday Dec. 13) to find it clear outside here in Massachusetts with the getting-ready-to-set just-20-hours-past-full Moon still visible in the northwestern sky. So I dressed very warmly, made a hot cup of tea, and took my camera to the Sunwheel. The sky was gorgeous!
I arrived at the Sunwheel at 7:30 a.m. as sunlight was already spreading over the land, made my way toward the East to the center of the stone circle, and found that the Sun was just becoming visible through the bare trees as seen from the center of the Sunwheel. And when I looked more closely, I saw that the location of sunrise along the horizon was very close to the position it would have 8 days later, on the morning of the winter solstice. So even though my purpose in being out before breakfast on that cold December morning was to see the Moon setting, my attention was first captivated by the sight of the rising Sun.
I took a number of pictures of the rising Sun toward the southeast, the direction of the winter solstice sunrise, and then I turned around to face the northwest and the setting full Moon. With perfectly clear skies it was easy to see the Moon, still quite high in the sky northwestern sky, and I realized that it would probably be 30-45 minutes until the Moon set behind the hills on the horizon. If I had had long underwear on, I might have just stood out in the dawn air and watched, but I was already chilled to the bone and wanted to get warm. I gazed skyward as long as I could, and then went back to my car to go home.
When I got out of the wind and had a few sips of tea, I turned my car around and was just about to drive away when I realized I hadn't taken any pictures of the Moon. That was silly, I thought -- what if I didn't come back to see the Moon set further? So I had a few more sips of tea, let my hands warm up until I could feel my fingers, got out of the car and walked back to the center of the Sunwheel. I took at least 5 pictures of the full Moon when it was still maybe 10 degrees above the horizon. At this point I was satisfied with my outing, and I went back to the car to go home.
Once I was in the shelter of the seemingly warm car, I had more tea, sipping the deliciously hot liquid as I gazed at the crisp landscape. I was in no hurry to go anywhere -- no one would even be awake at home at this hour. And then I realized that instead of having my car face East, with the Sun already having risen, I could turn my car around to face West and watch the Moon as I drank my tea. So I did.
And by the time my tea was finished, the Moon had dropped considerably in the sky. Again I got out of the car and walked back to the center of the Sunwheel to take more photos. My interest in being at the Sunwheel to see the setting Moon, as opposed to anywhere else, was that Dec. 13 was the one morning this month when the Moon had its northernmost declination (i.e. latitude on the sky), and was even more northerly than the summer Sun ever gets. That meant that the Moon would be seen to set more northerly than the summer solstice Sun. However, since the peak of the Moon's 18.6-year cycle, called Major Lunar Standstill, was 2 years ago in 2006, the setting full Moon today was not as northerly as it had been 2 years ago in December. I was looking forward to the beautiful sight of seeing the Moon set between the summer solstice sunset stone and the northern moonset stone.
So I stood and watched the setting Moon, first taking photos with my zoom lens, and then taking photos which also showed the Moon's alignment relative to the Sunwheel stones. And all the while the Moon was getting lower and lower, closer to the horizon, closer to the time of setting. This time I didn't go back to my car. I just decided to watch the event from where I was. And what surprised me the most was that in the early morning light the full Moon was getting so much harder to see.
I was puzzled by this. I had often seen the Moon rise in the late afternoon, not even as full as now (just 20 hours past the instant of maximum illumination), and even in the daylight the Moon was easier to see close to the horizon these other times than it was this cold December morning. Turbulence in the atmosphere? A lower horizon? I'm not sure. For now, the faintness of the Moon as it set that day remains a great mystery to me.
Just before the Moon touched the horizon, I could still see it clearly, and the Moon shows in the photos. It helped that I knew where it was, though. I realized that if I had gone home and come back to see moonset, I might not have been able to find the Moon in the sky. But once the Moon went partway below the horizon, I could barely see it at all. I knew it was still there, and I took photos in hopes of enhancing them to see the Moon. Then I said a brief 'thank you' to the Universe for the gorgeous show I had just seen. Including that I was awake and well enough to see it! After all, 1 year ago I was not able to just get up any random morning, drive myself to the Sunwheel, and walk back and forth to the center from the road 3-4 times to watch the Moon set and the Sun rise. So even though very cold, I was filled with gratitude.
And this time, when I want back to my car, I really did go home.
I spent the morning making a picasa web album of the photos I took at the Sunwheel -- to view the photos please see: