Last month's supermoon: on November 14, you could see it rising above Athens through the propylaea of the Acropolis. Image Credit: AFP/Aris Messinis/Getty Images
You might be sick to death of hearing about "supermoons." If that's the case, I bring good news: tonight, December 13, you'll see the final supermoon of 2016. If you're not sick of them, I also bring good news, because you have one more supermoon to see.
Of course, where there is good news there is bad, and it's this: The supermoon will make it very difficult to catch the Geminid meteor shower, which peaks tonight. Don't give up, however; because of the sheer volume of meteors that comprise the Geminids, you might see some shooting across the sky.
WHAT IS A SUPERMOON?
Before last year, when the red harvest supermoon took over the world, you might never have heard of a supermoon. And now we've had three in a row to close out the year: October's super hunter's moon, November's super beaver moon, and now December's full cold or long nights supermoon. This is true in part because supermoon is not an astronomy term, but rather, one of astrology. (In case you are wondering about the difference: astronomy is science; astrology is make believe.) The name has stuck of late because it's Twitter-friendly and a lot easier to remember than the actual name for the phenomenon: perigee-syzygy of the Earth–Moon–Sun system.
If you want to understand what's going on and why there are so many supermoons recently, you really do need to look at the proper name. Perigee occurs when the Moon is closest to the Earth in an orbit. Remember: the Moon's orbit is not a perfect circle; rather, it's elliptical. Sometimes it's close to Earth. Sometimes it's farther away.
Syzygy means three celestial objects are in alignment. (It can be the Sun, Earth, and Moon, but it might be the Sun, Venus, and Earth, for example, when astronomers can view Venus cross the solar disc.) So when do the Earth, Sun, and Moon experience syzygy? In one of two instances: either the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth (that's a new moon, because from our vantage, the Moon is completely black; the far side of the Moon is in full illumination) or the Earth is between the Sun and the Moon (a full moon, when the Sun's rays are lighting the side we see).
Bear in mind that this does not mean perfect alignment. The phases of the moon have nothing to do with the Earth's shadow.
So a perigee-syzygy of the Earth–Moon–Sun system means an alignment that occurs when the Moon is near to the Earth. It could be a full moon. It could be a new moon. Easy, right? Inasmuch as a made-up term from a made-up belief system can have a proper definition, a supermoon generally means a full moon.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY SUPERMOONS THIS YEAR?
Not every full moon is at perigee (or its opposite, apogee, when the Moon is farthest from the Earth). The lunar cycle—the number of days it takes the Moon to experience each of its phases, new moon to new moon—lasts about 29 and a half days. Every 14 lunar cycles, the full moon coincides with perigee.
Supermoons tend to come in threes, however. The reason is that the full moons preceding and succeeding perigee-syzygy are still inordinately close to the Earth, and thus appear a lot larger than normal. Moons that are 224,641 miles or closer to the Earth are considered supermoons. The result: a supermoon trifecta, three in a row.
So if you've experienced supermoon overload this year, take comfort that it'll be more than a year before you have to hear the term again. Enjoy it: 2016 has been a year of wildly unexpected and sometimes awful events. Something as predictable and wonderful as the cosmos can be a great comfort indeed.
From a 17-mile-long particle accelerator to a football-field–sized space observatory, here are seven massive machines that have made an equally huge impact on how we build, how we observe our universe, and how we lift rockets into space. We've also included a bonus machine: a technological marvel-to-be that may be just as influential once it's completed.
The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator located at CERN outside of Geneva, Switzerland, is the largest machine in the world: It has a circumference of almost 17 miles and took around a decade to build. The tubes of the LHC are a vacuum; superconducting magnets guide and accelerate two high-energy particle beams, which are moving in opposite directions, to near-light-speed. When the beams collide, scientists use the data to find the answers to some of the most basic questions of physics and the laws that govern the universe we live in.
Since the LHC started up in 2008, scientists have made numerous groundbreaking discoveries, including finding the once-theoretical Higgs boson particle—a.k.a. the "God" particle—which helps give other particles mass. Scientists had been chasing the Higgs boson for five decades. The discovery illuminates the early development of the universe, including how particles gained mass after the Big Bang. Scientists are already working on the LHC's successor, which will be three times its size and seven times more powerful.
Built in 1965, NASA's crawler-transporters are two of the largest vehicles ever constructed: They weigh 2400 tons each and burn 150 gallons of diesel per mile. In contrast, the average semi truck gets roughly 6.5 miles per gallon. The vehicles' first job was to move Saturn V rockets—which took us to the moon and measured 35 stories tall when fully constructed—from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (the largest single-room building in the world) to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The 4.2-mile trip was a slow one; the transporters traveled at a rate of 1 mph to ensure the massive rockets didn't topple over. Without a vehicle to move rockets from the spot they were stacked to the launch pad, we never could have gotten off the ground, much less to the moon.
After our moon missions, the crawler-transporters were adapted to service the Space Shuttle program, and moved the shuttles from 1981 to 2003. Since the retirement of the orbiters, these long-serving machines are once again being repurposed to transport NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS), which, at 38 stories tall, will be the biggest rocket ever constructed when it's ready, hopefully in a few years (the timeline is in flux due to budgetary issues).
Three football fields could fit inside the National Ignition Facility, which holds the largest, most energetic, and most precise laser in the world (it also has the distinction of being the world's largest optical instrument). NIF—which took about a decade to build and opened in 2009—is located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Its lasers are used to create conditions not unlike those within the cores of stars and giant planets, which helps scientists to gain understanding about these areas of the universe. The NIF is also being used to pursue the goal of nuclear fusion. If we can crack the code for this reaction that powers stars, we'll achieve unlimited clean energy for our planet.
4. BERTHA THE TUNNEL BORER
When Seattle decided it needed a giant tunnel to replace an aging highway through the middle of the city, the city contracted with Hitachi Zosen Corporation to build the biggest tunnel boring machine in the world to do the job. The scope of Bertha's work had no precedent in modern-day digging, given the dense, abrasive glacial soil and bedrock it had to chew through.
In 2013, Bertha—named after Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle's first female mayor—was tasked with building a tunnel that would be big enough to carry four lanes of traffic (a two-lane, double-decker road). Bertha needed to carve through 1.7 miles of rock, and just 1000 feet in, the 57-foot, 6559-ton machine ran into a steel pipe casing that damaged it. Many predicted that Bertha was doomed, but after a massive, on-the-spot repair operation by Hitachi Zosen that took a year-and-a-half, the borer was up and running again.
In April 2017, Bertha completed its work, and engineers started the process of dismantling it; its parts will be used in future tunnel boring machines. Bertha set an example for what is possible in future urban tunnel work—but it's unlikely that tunnel boring machines will get much bigger than Bertha because of the sheer weight of the machine and the amount of soil it can move at once. Bertha's tunnel is scheduled to open in 2019.
5. INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION
The international space station is a highly efficient machine, equipped with instrumentation and life support equipment, that has kept humans alive in the inhospitable environment of low-Earth orbit since November 2, 2000. It's the biggest satellite orbiting the Earth made by humans. The major components were sent into space over a two-year period, but construction has slowly continued over the last decade, with astronauts adding the Columbus science laboratory and Japanese science module. The first module, Zarya, was just 41.2 feet by 13.5 feet; now, the ISS is 356 feet by 240 feet, which is slightly larger than a football field. The station currently has about 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume the crew can move about in. That's about the same area as a Boeing 747 (though much of the ISS's space is taken up by equipment). The U.S.'s solar panels are as large as eight basketball courts.
From the space station, scientists have made such important discoveries as what extended zero-G does to the human body, where cosmic rays come from, and how protein crystals can be used to treat cancer. Though NASA expects the most modern modules of the ISS to be usable well into the 2030s, by 2025 the agency may begin "transitioning" much of its ISS operations—and costs—to the private sector [PDF] with an eye on expanding the commercial potential of space.
6. LIGO GRAVITATIONAL WAVE DETECTOR
The Laser Inferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually made up of four different facilities—two laboratories and two detectors located 2000 miles apart, in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. The detectors, which took about five years to build and were inaugurated in 1999, are identical L-shaped vacuum chambers that are about 2.5 miles long and operate in unison. The mission of these machines is to detect ripples in the fabric of spacetime known as gravitational waves. Predicted in 1915 by Einstein's theory of general relativity, gravitational waves were entirely theoretical until September 2015, when LIGO detected them for the first time. Not only did this provide further confirmation of general relativity, it opened up entirely new areas of research such as gravitational wave astronomy. The reason the two detectors are so far from each other is to reduce the possibility of false positives; both facilities must detect a potential gravitational wave before it is investigated.
The Russians originally had a rival to the U.S. Space Shuttle program: a reusable winged spacecraft of their own called the Buran—and in the 1980s, they developed the AN-225 Mriya in order to transport it. With a wingspan the size of the Statue of Liberty, a 640-ton weight, six engines, and the ability to lift into the air nearly a half-million pounds, it's the longest and heaviest plane ever built. Mriya first flew in 1988, and since the Buran was mothballed in 1990 after just one flight (due to the breakup of the Soviet Union rather than the plane's capabilities), the AN-225 has only been used sparingly.
The monster plane has inspired new ideas. In 2017, Airspace Industry Corporation of China signed an agreement with Antonov, the AN-225's manufacturer, to built a fleet of aircraft based on the AN-225's design that would carry commercial satellites on their backs and launch them into space. Currently, virtually all satellites are launched from rockets. Meanwhile, Stratolaunch, a company overseen by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is building a plane that will be wider (but not longer) than Mriya. The giant plane will carry a launch vehicle headed for low-Earth orbit.
BONUS: 10,000-YEAR CLOCK
This forward-thinking project, funded by Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, focuses on reminding people about their long-term impact on the world. Instead of a traditional clock measuring hours, minutes, and seconds, the Clock of the Long Now measures times in years and centuries. The clock, which will be built inside a mountain on a plot of land in western Texas owned by Bezos, will tick once per year, with a century hand that advances just once every 100 years. The cuckoo on the clock will emerge just once per millennium. Construction began on the clock in early 2018. When this massive clock is completed—timeline unknown—it will be 500 feet high. What will be the impact of this one? Only the people of the 120th century will be able to answer that question.
Born in 1990, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope could be classified as a millennial. And like many millennials, its mission is to snap envy-inducing photos of its stunning surroundings. (Plus, with 6 million Twitter followers, it doesn't shy away from social media.)
The latest images Hubble captured, released by NASA in celebration of the telescope's 28th anniversary, do not disappoint. In a flyover video, the Lagoon Nebula's phantasmagoric splendor is revealed for all to see. This stellar nursery—an area where gas and dust contract inside a dense nebula, allowing new stars to be formed—is located 4000 light years away from Earth.
The vivid colors captured on camera can be explained by the gases present in those areas. Blue denotes glowing oxygen, yellow is starlight, red is glowing nitrogen, and dark purple is a mixture of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.
About 30 seconds into the video, a close-up view of one particularly bright star can be seen. That's Herschel 36, a monster star at the "roiling heart" of the Lagoon Nebula. It's only 1 million years old, making it a whippersnapper by celestial standards. NASA estimates it could live for another 5 million years, based on its mass.
What it lacks in age, it makes up for in size and power. It's 200,000 times brighter than our Sun and nearly nine times its diameter. It also generates "powerful ultraviolet radiation and hurricane-like stellar winds, carving out a fantasy landscape of ridges, cavities, and mountains of gas and dust," according to NASA.
Those "curtain-like sheets" you see in the video are the result of massive amounts of radiation and strong winds pushing the dust away.
See below for another view of the Lagoon Nebula. The image on the left was taken in visible light, and the one on the right was taken in infrared light.