A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Winter Rain and New Moons

The winter rains have returned full force to southern California after a two year absence, and the fact that they have come during the new moon is making me unpleasant company.
It’s not that I have any later were-wolf-like tendencies that cause moon-related outburst, nor that I believe in any supernatural connection between the rain and the moon, it’s just that the new moon is prime astronomical observing time and January is – or could be – a prime astronomical observing month. And the rain is stealing it away.
We’re still looking for planets, like we have been for a while, but this time things are a little different. We can see the final end of our searching in sight, and, this time, the final end will come not because we have finished looking everywhere in the sky, but because the camera that we have been using for the past 7 years is finally being retired in October. This impending retirement suddenly puts a new urgency in our searching, for any patch of the sky that we miss due to rain, clouds, fires, broken equipment, or anything else will remaining unsearched, potentially for years to come.
And we have had them, the clouds and rain (to say nothing of fires). Fabulous clouds and rain, even. In one weekend we got more rain than the total amount of rain my two and half year old daughter can remember over her entire life. She and I put on rain boots and walked down to the canyon below us, a place where we had been many times previously in her life, long ago with her asleep in a backpack, and, more recently lately, with her walking along beside until she tires. Last week, not knowing what was coming, I told her “Look there at those rocks! Sometimes when it rains a lot the water comes and covers them up and makes a river here!” So, during a brief lull in the rain, we went back down to the canyon to see, and the water was everywhere. You could have almost gotten by with a little kayak in the middle of the creek that was a dusty wash days earlier. “Daddy, water!” she said. “There’s water in everyone’s garden!” (She calls any park “everyone’s garden” which seems like an appropriate name to me). We found a shallow slow moving side stream and jumped and splashed and reveled in the water from the sky.
My point here is that I like the rain. Really I do. But, please, can’t we keep it confined to when there is a full moon? Every month there is about a week-long period centered on the full moon when looking for planets is simply not useful. Just like we need to avoid the bright lights from the city, which wash out the stars at night, we also need to avoid the bright light of the full. But, unlike the city lights, there is nowhere we can go to escape the light of the moon, so we have no choice but to close up for a week and wait for our search-light-bright nemesis to pass.
And then, for that week when the moon is full and the telescope is closed, then I really pray for the rain to come. Buckets of rain. Thunder and lightning. Frogs from the sky. Anything that nature can throw at us. During the week when I know the moon is full I look at the sky every night and revel in the clouds and precipitation and wish for more more more. My daughter and I giggle at the sound of the rain pounding the roof and marvel at the new drainage system we just finished installing which prevents the backyard from becoming a shallow inadvertent swimming pool. Give us more! Nothing is more fun than rain.
Nothing is more fun that rain, except when the moon is new. Then we have planets to find, and every cloud in the sky or forecast of showers several days off, or hint of a moist breeze blowing from the Pacific feels like theft. Part of the sky is being taken away, and I’ll never have the chance to look there again. It’s a strange theft; you don’t know for sure what, if anything you’re missing, much as if someone stole packages from under your Christmas tree that may or may not have had anything in them. In some ways, that theft is even harder to take, because the possibilities of what might be gone are almost limitless.
I’m not very fun to be around when it is raining and the moon is new. I would recommend avoiding me altogether. Or, if you must confront me, pointing out how nice the forecast looks in a few days. Or barring those, ask how my daughter is enjoying the rain. My scowl might break a little. But, really? Total avoidance is probably for the best.
Tonight, at least, the skies are looking clear. The last thing I’ll do before going to sleep is the same as the first thing I’ll do when I wake up tomorrow morning. I’ll walk out into my backyard just before sunrise and scan from horizon to horizon looking at the most prominent of the stars still peeking out of the brightening sky. I’ll scowl at any clouds that I see, and I’ll try to decide if perhaps they are just very local or short very lived or otherwise unproblematic. Or, more likely these days, I’ll step outside in the morning and see the whole sky covered in clouds, or I’ll feel raining coming down, or a thick morning haze will fill the entire LA basin. Then, as the gloomy sun begins to rise I’ll look right at the spot in the sky where we should have been searching for planets last night, and I’ll wonder what might have been in that now-stolen package and how many years will pass until finally someone gets to open it under their own tree.

1 comment:

  1. This is my favorite post of yours. Teach Lilah that New Moons are the Make-A-Wish-Moons and she'll always be looking for it.

    : )