Chasing the New Moon

Last week was a good week for moon viewing. When I turned out my reading lamp on Monday night (Dec 28), oblongs of moonlight appeared on my floor, thanks to my skylights. This happens from time to time, and when it does, I’m always surprised. I floated from room to room in search of the glow. Moonlight on my bookshelves. On my desk. In the shower. On my nightstand. Finally, I returned to my chair and sat again in the moonlight, radiant.

I was delighted to see the moonlight coming in through my skylights on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights as well. It was a nice coda to the end of the year.


While the full moon gets all the attention from moon viewers, the new crescent moon is also something to behold.

On December 15th, at sunset, I went out to look for the new moon. It was new the day before and so I would have a chance of seeing it when it was a little older than one day. Classes were over and I had just returned from biking around town running errands for the previous two hours, and, really, I would have preferred to make a cup of tea, sit in my comfy chair and battle with a Sudoku or read one of my unread magazines. But I went to my back door and had a look – mostly clear, with some thin cloud on the horizon. I had a reasonable chance of actually finding the young moon. I put my shoes back on, found my binoculars and bundled up.

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I didn’t have much time. It was ten minutes after four, the sun was setting, and the moon would set one hour later. It was too low to be seen from my deck, so I walked the three blocks to the park at the top of the hill behind my place. The park features an old 70-foot water tower that’s now a historical marker, and when I got there I sought the north-western corner for its view of the horizon. As I scanned the western sky, I realized I had to shuffle a few feet over because there was no way I could pick the faint moon out of the branches of the trees on the slope of the hill.

I guessed the moon would be at least ten degrees away from the sun and panned back and forth low on the horizon. The sky was still quite bright and I couldn’t tell how thick the clouds were, nor could I tell if my binoculars were in focus because there was nothing in the sky to focus on. Maybe I would be clouded out? It wouldn’t have surprised me given how many cloudy nights we had had for previous new moons over the fall. Before long, Jupiter and Saturn would be visible, careening toward their conjunction on Dec. 21, so all would not be lost.

The moon was also careening toward the horizon, but it would be brightening as it did so – I still had a chance. Already I had been looking for twenty minutes and in another half hour the moon would set. I panned back and forth, up and down. Then: a whisper of light in the clouds. An ever-so-slight white curve. A slice of pure geometry. The thinnest celestial sickle you’ve ever seen. It was barely there, yet there it was, the crescent moon. I couldn’t see it naked eye, but it was a jewel in the binoculars. Not even twenty-nine and a half hours old.

Success! I could scarcely believe how thin it was, such a delicate curve.

It was sinking fast in the skiff of orange-pink clouds and I tried to hold my binoculars still enough to take a photo through them. But I had nothing to steady the binoculars on, and the icy wind bit my hands. On the one instant when I successfully lined up the phone camera with the eyepiece, my fingers were too cold to press the button and I missed my chance. After trying a couple more times, I realized I should instead be admiring that thinnest slice of moon. So that’s what I did for the last five minutes before the slivered moon slipped deeper into the clouds and finally disappeared.

That was the youngest moon I’ve ever seen. Higher in the sky, Jupiter and Saturn came out, each with their dozens of moons. I’ve always been glad we at least have the one. I looked at the two giant planets – only a few degrees apart – as a sort of exclamation point before putting my binoculars away and heading back home.