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04.07.20 - April's Spring SuperMoon

Call it whatever you want, when the Moon is at perigee, it always instills a sense of awe at the sheer scale of even our minuscule corner of the universe. The Moon is our closest neighbor, a glowing monolith about one quarter the size of the Earth, but even at its closest it is still over 200,000 miles away. It affects the light that reaches the Earth, deforms the surface of the ocean, and even distorts our own relative gravity (though only to an imperceptible degree). The allure of the Moon is inescapable, even when Houston's weather is largely uncooperative.

Subtle waves of backlit clouds repeatedly threatened to consume the Moon entirely, until they finally succeeded.

It seems that there is an endless supply of monikers that people will attribute to our closest celestial neighbor, especially for those instances when it is noticeably closer than usual. For April’s full Moon at perigee, the second of three “SuperMoons” crammed into the first half of the year, the nickname “Super Pink Moon” has taken hold. Regardless of which arbitrary name the Moon might inherit, the chance to view a bigger and brighter Moon was more than enough impetus for me to break free of the suffocating walls of quarantine, and get lost in the endless expanse of the sky above.

The "Super Pink Moon" is a floral sobriquet for the Moon's closest orbital approach in the fertile month of April. The reference to the color pink appears to be a remnant of American folklore, an homage to the countless pink blooms that emerge early in the Spring along the Eastern United States.

I wouldn't call Houston an astronomy-friendly city, at least from an environmental standpoint. There is no lack of astronomical interest given all the NASA nerds living in the area, but the light pollution of over 7 million people, and the frequency of meteorological events makes viewing or photographing the sky a challenge. The night of this SuperMoon was no different. Multiple layers of translucent, undulating clouds danced in the unwavering glow of the Moon, but the thick clouds building on the horizon were a foreboding indicator of the impending overcast conditions. It was apparent that I needed to move quickly to capture the event, so I chose to forego my usual tripod setup, or searching for my fastest medium-wide lens. With tempered expectations, I grabbed my camera with the standard 28-300mm zoom lens and headed to my backyard. To be honest, since I haven’t expanded my lens collection (and I still don’t own a telescope), I honestly felt destined to repeat the same lunar images I have produced before. However, sub-optimal conditions sometimes lead to surprising results to those patient enough to find them.

The brilliant Moon cast a radial glow into the rapidly moving clouds that churned above my head. It loomed over the sleeping city like some form of all-seeing eye. The varying density of the clouds refracted the light differently such that the reflected white light off the Moon came through in various hues. I kept expecting the Moon to be lost completely in the clouds, but for brief moments the clouds merely veiled the Moon in overlapped gradients of suspended moisture.

I utilized a couple images to make this HDR (High Dynamic Range) composite.

The Moon was bright, but the clouds could reduced the intensity considerably. The lighting conditions varied wildly as multiple layers of varying thickness passed briskly overhead. I prefer to shoot manually at night because metering in such low light can be more of hassle than it is worth, but keeping up with the constantly changing lighting conditions was more of a challenge than usual. My zoom lens has a maximum aperture of f5 around 70mm, so I was stuck balancing ISO with slow shutter speeds as I tried to find the right exposure. Slow shutter speeds made camera shake a considerable concern, so I climbed on my back fence so I could lay my arms across the top and provide a more stable support at the correct viewing angle. This method was tiring and rather painful, but it provided enough stability to get the shots I wanted before the cloud conditions dissipated. The colorful veil of clouds slowly gave way to partially clear skies, so the brilliant face of the Moon was momentarily free of the dense cloud cover. With the clouds no longer drawing attention from the Moon, I decided that I now had the time to pull out the tripod and the big lens. As is so often the case, by the time I got the 300mm f2.8 + 2x TC, tripod, and cable release all set up, the Moon was largely lost behind a dappled layer of clouds in the upper atmosphere, and a thin layer of fast-moving clouds close to the ground that were determined to obscure my view. With patience though, I slowly found brief moments when the clouds parted enough for me to get a clear shot, or at least a moment when the layers of clouds were backlit into a tapestry of shape and color that I found pleasing (such as the first photo of this blog). The opportunity was short lived though, and soon the clouds thickened until the Moon was lost completely. It may not have been an optimal night, but at least it wasn’t a loss.

Even though the close up of the Moon is largely the same 600mm shot I have previously taken, I developed a few new post-processing methods to bring out the complex detail of the Moon's scarred surface. In order to get more accurate detail in the future, I will need to increase the focal length of my viewing lens to get a greater number of pixels across the Moon's iconic surface.

I keep hoping that sometime soon I will rent a longer lens or a large telescope during a SuperMoon so I can maximize the sharpness of each detail on the lunar surface, but unfortunately I haven’t found the right opportunity yet. In Houston, it is honestly always a risk to plan around the hope that clear skies with coincide with renting equipment or shooting on location. Clouds and rain are just too common here, and the ever-present humidity is the enemy of image sharpness.

Hopefully one day I will head back out to the deep, dark skies of Big Bend with a big rig in tow, but unfortunately the Covid19 pandemic has all but shut down the country as we fight to contain the growth of this highly contagious and deadly disease. I actually had to cancel the Big Bend trip we had been planning for months in March once Big Bend and the McDonald's Observatory cancelled all my reservations and closed their doors to the public. With all the uncertainty of this post Covid19 world, who knows when the opportunity will come again. When it does though, you can expect that I will be here on this blog again to share the experience.

© 2020 Shaun C Tarpley

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