A Guide to Supermoons and Mini-Moons through 2025

This webpage describes why some full Moons appear larger than others do. While not a large effect (about 6.5% larger and 13% brighter than average), it may be noticable. These `large' full Moons are not rare; in fact, each year has a supermoon season that lasts a couple of months as you will see below.

What is a Supermoon?
A Supermoon is a term that has arisen relatively recently in the popular press, and refers to a full Moon that appears significantly larger than normal.

What equipment do I need to see it?
None. Just look up. In fact, the full Moon isn't all that great to look at in a telescope because the shadows that make structures like craters and mountains easiest to see are shortest when the Moon is full. Your unaided eye, or at most, binoculars, is probably best for this event.

Why are some full Moons larger and brighter than others? How big is the effect?
The orbit of the Moon around the Earth is elliptical, so sometimes the Moon is closer and sometimes further away. The distance between the center of the Earth and the center of the Moon averages about 383,000 km, and ranges from about 356,000 km to about 407,000 km, or about +/- 6.5%. As a result, the angular diameter of the Moon as it rises ranges between about 29.5 and 33.5 arcminutes (60 arcminutes equals one degree). The closest approach of the Moon to the Earth is called perigee, and its location at maximum distance is called apogee. The amount that an ellipse is non-circular is given by its eccentricity. The eccentricity e = 0 for a circle, and averages 0.054, but ranges from 0.026 to 0.077 for the Moon. Because the diameter is about 6.5% larger, the area is about 13% larger than average, and so is the overall brightness. That is a rather small effect, easily outdone if the weather happens to have produced a cold front that clears out all clouds and haze in the atmosphere. It will be difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to notice a 10% increase in brightness. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Note you can find claims that the Supermoon will be 14% larger and 30% brighter. These estimates are rather misleading, because they compare the Supermoon with the Minimoon (smallest possible, see below) and not the average Moon, so the numbers appear twice as large (and then they round up these numbers). With the eccentricity as high as 0.077, you'd think it should be 7.7% larger, but that eccentricity changes during the orbit so the effect is a bit smaller. The best way to tell what is going on is simply to plot values, which I do below.

Does the shape of the ellipse change with time?
Yes indeed! The Moon's orbit is quite complex (Fig 4.6 in Espenak and Meeus, 2009), and varies in shape as the Moon responds to gravitational perturbations caused by the shape of the Earth and the location of the Sun. Perigee is smaller than the average distance by a factor (1-e), so the Moon ends up ranging between about 1.065 and 0.935 of its average angular diameter. According to Espenak and Meeus, over a 5000 year time interval there were 33,138 perigees, and they ranged from 356,355 km to 370,399 km. Similarly, apogees (maximum Earth-Moon distance) ranged from 404,042 to 406,725 km. There is a nice on-line calculator by John Walker that allows you to calculate the perigee and apogee distances for any year.

How big does it have to be to qualify as a Supermoon?
There are no set criteria. Greater than a 5% increase above normal seems like a reasonable definition, and that's what I adopt here.

What about when the Moon appears smaller than normal?
Yes, this occurs just as frequently as the Supermoon. Someone appears to have coined the term `Mini-moon' to refer to such a case.

Can we tell the difference by looking at it?
If you were to put a normal-sized Moon next to a Supermoon or a Minimoon you could probably tell which one was larger. Alone in the sky that determination is a more difficult task. Have a look and see what you think.

How special is the November 14 Supermoon?
The 2016 Supermoon was noteworthy in that the center of the Moon will not come as close to the center of the Earth again until November of 2034 (see below). However, a closer examination of the data show that this Supermoon isn't really any more special than other Supermoon.

The Walker calculator mentioned above shows that the extremes of the perigees and apogees aren't rare: in the ten year period that spans 2011 - 2020, every year had an apogee within 400 km (i.e. within 0.1%) of the maximum value achieved in the entire 5000 year span, and nine out of 10 years had two such apogees. Close perigees are a bit more rare, but not that unusual either. Between Jan 1, 2011 and Dec 31, 2020, three years had a perigee within 0.1% of the minimum possible perigee, and nine out of the ten years had perigees within 0.2% of the minimum possible value. Apogees and perigees shift around relative to the lunar phase with a period of about 13.5 months. If perigee and the full Moon are lined up today, in 13.5 months there will have been nearly exactly 14 full Moons and nearly exactly 15 perigees, so the full Moon and perigee will again align. Hence, lining up a perigee with a full Moon is a common occurrence. As a result, maximum apogee and minimum perigee are nearly achieved most years for some full Moon, and often for several full Moons.

You can see this in the plot below, and in the following table, where I tabulate the three Supermoons this year and next, as well as a few other notable Supermoons.

                  Perigee        Time Delay         
        DATE      Distance   Perigee to Full Moon  Perigee/Record
   Dec 12, 2016: 358,462 km       24h39m            1.0059                     |
   Oct 16, 2016: 357,859 km       19h12m            1.0042                     |
    Dec 4, 2017: 357,495 km       16h54m            1.0032                     |
   Sep 27, 2015: 356,876 km        1h05m            1.0014                     |
   Feb 19, 2019: 356,761 km        6h47m            1.0011       
   Jan 30, 2010: 356,592 km        2h45m            1.0007       FROM THE STANDPOINT OF AN OBSERVER,
   Mar 19, 2011: 356,577 km        0h59m            1.0006       THESE, AND ALL OTHER SUPERMOONS ARE
    Jan 1, 2018: 356,565 km        4h29m            1.0006        ESSENTIALLY EQUIVALENT              
   Nov 14, 2016: 356,511 km        2h30m            1.0004                      
   Nov 25, 2034: 356,447 km        0h26m            1.0003                     |
   Jan 14, 1930: 356,399 km        2h04m            1.0001                     |
    Jan 1, 2257: 356,372 km        0h26m            1.0001                     |
5000-yr Record : 356,355 km          -              1.0000                     |
Remember your position on the surface of the Earth can affect the distance to the Moon by several thousand km, so the distance differences between Supermoons are minor.

The Moon always looks larger to the eye when it is rising or setting because when it is high in the sky there are no reference points and it appears rather lonely up there surrounded by blank sky and a few stars. In actuality, the Moon is closer to you when it is overhead because you are standing right underneath it. Because the full Moon looks most impressive when it is near the horizon - and that's kind of the point of all of this, to look at the Moon and think `Wow, that looks big!' - let's see how it's angular diameter varies from month to month just after the full Moon has risen.

The red points on the above graph show the angular diameter of every full Moon between 2010 and 2025 at a time soon after it has risen so that it is still low in the eastern sky. To construct this graph I chose Houston as the location, but the results won't change by more than the thickness of the points for other locations in the continental US. Technically, the full Moon only occurs at a single time, so I picked the moonrise closest to the actual time of full Moon, and determined (from the planetarium program Stellarium) the angular diameter of the Moon when it was about 5 degrees above the horizon.

The graph shows:

If you look very carefully at the graph, it looks as if the Supermoon on 1/1/18 appears a tiny bit larger than the one on 11/14/16. There are a couple of reasons for this. Consider the following graph, which depicts how the angular diameter of the Moon varies on the Supermoon nights of 11/14/16 UT (Sunday/Monday) and 1/1/18, and one night after Supermoon on 11/15/16 UT (Monday/Tuesday). By the way, the dates can be a bit confusing because the date changes at midnight. The dates refer to the Universal Time (Greenwich England) of the time of perigee. That occurs on 11/14/16 and 1/1/18 for these two events, but for observers in North America the closest approaches occur on the nights of 11/13/16 - 11/14/16, and 1/1/18 - 1/2/18, respectively. I've amended the plot to make the dates more clear.

On all nights, notice the Moon becomes about 1.5% larger as it rises in the sky as we rotate underneath it. Keep in mind that a 1% change in diameter is a very small difference that you won't notice. Perigee (P) occurs closer to moonrise on 1/1/18, and closer to moonset on the morning of 11/14/16, with both perigees nearly identical in distance. F denotes the actual time of the full Moon. If you were to watch the Moon rise and measure its size when it transits (and is closest to you), it turns out that the Moon is actually about 50 km closer when it transits the middle of the sky on the night of Jan 1-2, 2018 than it is on the night of Nov 13-14, 2016. You would never be able to tell this with your eye, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to measure this difference even with high-precision imaging cameras. It turns out that Moon is a bit higher in the sky (and therefore closer) when viewed from North America in early-January than it is in mid-November. At the level of a few hundred km, these tiny effects come into play.

I don't care if I can't tell the difference by looking. I still want to know where on the Earth I can be to get as close as possible to the Moon!
You should position yourself underneath the Moon during perigee. A lot of times this ends up being in the ocean somewhere. For example, for the Nov 14, 2016 supermoon, minimum distance occurred at 11:24UT (5:24 am CST Monday morning), and you needed to be at longitude 175d7m W and latitude 13d25m N -- in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands, with a lunar distance from there of 350,127 km. Mauna Kea on Hawaii was probably the best land location, as you also gained 4 km or so by being on the mountain. You would have achieved a distance of 350,173 km when the Moon transited at 10:02UT as viewed from the summit of Mauna Kea. This was the distance to the center of the Moon. Subtract the lunar radius of 1736 km to get the distance you'd have to jump to get to the surface of the Moon.

Oh no! I missed it, or it was cloudy on that night!
No problem. They are not rare. In fact, just look the next night (or the night before it was supposed to happen); the Moon won't look any different to you. The graph shows what the Moon looks like as it rose on 11/15/16 UT (Monday evening), one day after the official famous 2016 Supermoon. The difference in angular size over the 24 hour interval was less than 1%, not something you could notice. Although it was technically a day past full, you likely wouldn't have noticed that either, because the Moon looks more or less full for at least a day either side of the time of official full Moon.

Have fun with this. An easy connection to the cycles of our natural world.

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Patrick Hartigan