For the world’s Northern Hemisphere, tonight is the night of the Full Hunter’s Moon. Watch it rise in the east tonight as the sun goes down. Like any full moon, the Hunter’s Moon will shine all night long. It’ll soar highest in the sky around midnight tonight and will set in the west tomorrow around sunrise.
Officially, the Hunter’s Moon is the full moon after the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox. This year, the Harvest Moon came in late September, so tonight’s moon in late October bears the name Hunter’s Moon.
Generally speaking, we can say the moon stays full all through the night tonight. But to astronomers, the moon turns full at a well-defined instant, or when it’s most opposite the sun for the month. That happens today at 19:49 Universal Time (or 1:49 p.m. Central Daylight Time in North America).
Worldwide map at the instant of the October 2012 full moon
The day and night sides of Earth at the instant of the full moon (2012 October 29 at 19:49 Universal Time)
So how is the Hunter’s Moon different from other full moons? First of all, the Hunter’s Moon always occurs in autumn. In the Northern Hemisphere, it usually falls in October, although it can come as late as early November. But here is the real difference: the location of the moonrise on your horizon. After tonight – the night of the full Hunter’s Moon – you can watch the moon rise noticeably farther north along the eastern horizon for several nights in succession.
It’s this northward movement of the moon along the eastern horizon at moonrise – for several days in a row, around the time of full moon – that gives the Hunter’s Moon its magic. The Hunter’s Moon resembles the Harvest Moon in character, though to a lesser extent.
For us at northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, these more northerly moonrises assure us of earlier-than-usual moonrises for the next few nights. Here is the trick. On average, the moon rises 50 minutes later daily. But at mid-northern latitudes, the moon now rises about 30 to 35 minutes later. And farther north, the effect is even more pronounced. For instance, at latitudes close to the Arctic Circle – like at Fairbanks, Alaska – the moon actually rises around 15 to 20 minutes later for several days in a row.
That means there is no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise, in the days following the full moon.
Before the advent of electricity, our ancestors knew how to plan nocturnal activity around the full Hunter’s Moon. If you live sufficiently north on the globe, you can count on tonight’s Hunter’s Moon to bring early evening-till-dawn moonlight for the next several nights!