By ALICIA CHANG, AP Science Writer Alicia Chang, Ap Science Writer – Tue Dec 29, 7:03 pm ET
Once in a blue moon there is one on New Year's Eve. Revelers ringing in 2010 will be treated to a so-called blue moon. According to popular definition, a blue moon is the second full moon in a month. But don't expect it to be blue — the name has nothing to do with the color of our closest celestial neighbor.
"If you're in Times Square, you'll see the full moon right above you. It's going to be that brilliant," said Jack Horkheimer, director emeritus of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium and host of a weekly astronomy TV show.
However, the Eastern Hemisphere can celebrate with a partial lunar eclipse on New Year's Eve when part of the moon enters the Earth's shadow. The eclipse will not be visible in the Americas.
A full moon occurs every 29.5 days, and most years have 12. On average, an extra full moon in a month — a blue moon — occurs every 2.5 years. The last time there was a lunar double take was in May 2007. New Year's Eve blue moons are rarer, occurring every 19 years. The last time was in 1990; the next one won't come again until 2028.
Though Sky & Telescope corrected the error decades later, the definition caught on. For purists, however, this New Year's Eve full moon doesn't even qualify as a blue moon. It's just the first full moon of the winter season.
In a tongue-in-cheek essay posted on the magazine's Web site this week, senior contributing editor Kelly Beatty wrote: "If skies are clear when I'm out celebrating, I'll take a peek at that brilliant orb as it rises over the Boston skyline to see if it's an icy shade of blue. Or maybe I'll just howl."
According to modern folklore, a Blue Moon is the second full moon in a calendar month. Usually months have only one full moon, but occasionally a second one sneaks in. Full moons are separated by 29 days, while most months are 30 or 31 days long; so it is possible to fit two full moons in a single month. This happens every two and a half years, on average.
Right: One way to make a blue moon: use a blue filter. That's what Kostian Iftica did on July 2nd when he photographed this full moon rising over Brighton, Mass.
But will it really be blue? Probably not. The date of a full moon, all by itself, doesn't affect the moon's color. The moon on July 31st will be pearly-gray, as usual. Unless....
There was a time, not long ago, when people saw blue moons almost every night. Full moons, half moons, crescent moons--they were all blue, except some nights when they were green.
The time was 1883, the year an Indonesian volcano named Krakatoa exploded. Scientists liken the blast to a 100-megaton nuclear bomb. Fully 600 km away, people heard the noise as loud as a cannon shot. Plumes of ash rose to the very top of Earth's atmosphere. And the moon turned blue.
Krakatoa's ash is the reason. Some of the ash-clouds were filled with particles about 1 micron (one millionth of a meter) wide--the right size to strongly scatter red light, while allowing other colors to pass. White moonbeams shining through the clouds emerged blue, and sometimes green.
Blue moons persisted for years after the eruption. People also saw lavender suns and, for the first time, noctilucent clouds. The ash caused "such vivid red sunsets that fire engines were called out in New York, Poughkeepsie, and New Haven to quench the apparent conflagration," according to volcanologist Scott Rowland at the University of Hawaii.
The key to a blue moon is having in the air lots of particles slightly wider than the wavelength of red light (0.7 micron)--and no other sizes present. This is rare, but volcanoes sometimes spit out such clouds, as do forest fires:
In the western U.S., there will be wildfires burning on July 31st. If any of those fires produce ash or oily-smoke containing lots of 1-micron particles, the Blue Moon there could be blue.
More likely, it'll be red. Ash and dust clouds thrown into the atmosphere by fires and storms usually contain a mixture of particles with a wide range of sizes. Most are smaller than 1 micron, and they tend to scatter blue light. This kind of cloud makes the Moon turn red; indeed, red Blue Moons are far more common than blue Blue Moons.
Blue Moons and Lavender Suns (Alaska Science Forum)