'Standstill' My Beating Heart: A Lunar Love Affair
Northernmost moonrise at Chimney Rock, CO.
Credit: GB Cornucopia

Two lovers, a thousand miles apart and yearning to be back in each other's arms, may find a ray of comfort as they gaze upon the same Moon, knowing that they are bathing together in celestial light from the same source.

Or more likely in the modern world, our lovers will "IM" their terms of endearment while bathing in the light of their LCD displays, blissfully oblivious to what the Moon is doing. Of course the SETI Institute (which I recently joined) is building the Allen Telescope Array to pick up Not-So-Instant Messaging from interstellar technologists.

Certainly I am much involved with the technology of modern communication, and I do appreciate its power to keep me on the pulse of personal, worldly, and extra-terrestrial affairs.

Yet this past year I decided to spend some substantial time away from the clicks, bleeps, and ring tones that pervade modern living. I traveled out to sea, and to remote, desert locations like Chaco Canyon and Chimney Rock.

Cell phones and Internet connections don't work well in the midst of seas and deserts, but there are other forms of connection that do. I made real contact with a time when humans were keen observers of the sky and lived in closer communion with their cosmos.

For example, one night I was astonished to realize that the subtle glow I was discerning on the horizon was not the ubiquitous light pollution of yonder city, but the Milky Way rising!

This grand display of a spiral arm was profoundly alluring, so who could have predicted that my travels would sweep me into a serious, new love affair with a more commonly seen celestial companion - the Moon.

Yes, I confess that I have been communing unabashedly with the "Man in the Moon"--watching him with my naked eyes and sensing the way he draws me closer to the pulse of cosmic affairs. And yes, he does go through phases--a sign of inconstancy for some-- but I love the drama of his waxing and waning and have come to adore his evocative ways. He's truly an amazing dancer.

My lunar love affair ignited last spring aboard an Italian cruise ship. We sailed to the middle of the Mediterranean where I basked for awhile in his fleeting shadow. What a potent moment as he blocked the light of the mighty Sun at midday. Such a heartthrob!

After the voyage, I learned that I was not alone in my loverly lunacy. One of my chums--a writer for Astronomy Magazine--had proposed marriage to his lady during those few minutes of total solar eclipse. Evidently this literally Sun-crossed couple chose to transcend any pre-modern superstition of foreboding, and to include the joys of traditional sky watching with the happy moment of their engagement.

A couple of months later, I made a challenging, 4-wheel drive to a remote, high-desert canyon in the American southwest. Chaco Culture National Historical Park is probably best known for the Sun Dagger ancient observatory atop its most prominent geological feature--Fajada Butte. It is also famous for a "supernova" pictograph, which may well be a rock art recording of that 1054 AD apparition by a Chacoan observer.

Chaco is a land of extremes--over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in July and below zero in January. May had seemed to me a fine month to carry out a mission to discover how my role as a regional representative of NASA space science might be of service to the Chaco interpretive staff. I had no idea that my Man in the Moon would be waiting there to further seduce me.

Shortly after I arrived in the Park, the Moon made his move. I watched him arise from behind a glorious red mound of rock, eventually presenting his splendid fullness soon after sundown (see photo). I felt that same cosmic heartthrob.

Now wait a minute. How could a simple event like a full moonrise at sunset hold such sway? I diverted my energy to designing how such a moment might be explained efficiently to Park visitors, and to determining which NASA educational materials might be best suited to the occasion.

But the Moon was not done with me.

An interpretive ranger, by the curious name of GB Cornucopia, happened to be leading a "Moonwalk" that evening, which included a sunset tour of Pueblo Bonito - the largest and most renowned example of Chaco's extraordinary sandstone architecture.

As I followed the tour, I was certainly not expecting GB's astronomical commentary to be of any news to me. After all, I held a doctoral degree in astrophysics and had taught modern astronomy for many years. I was there to serve GB, not the other way around. How delightful then, when such hubris was duly humbled with a dose of traditional knowledge that would turn my growing attraction to the Moon into a full-blown, passionate obsession.

GB told the assembled visitors how moonrises move north and south on the horizon during a single month, just as the sunrises do over the course of a year. Further inquiry revealed that the north-south extremes of this monthly excursion vary over an 18.6-year "lunar standstill cycle".

Now here's the big news. We are currently in the midst of a "major lunar standstill season" (2004-2007). This presents rare opportunities to directly experience the most northerly and southerly moonrises in 18.6 years and to attune to the sorts of observations made by the sky watchers of Chaco and many other ancient cultures around the world. Each month in this 3-year "season", the Moon outdoes the mighty Sun (here again) by rising and setting farther north and south than the Sun at its solstice extremes.

Be "standstill" my beating heart. Why hadn't I ever heard about this? I was crazy with curiosity, and there's nothing like a little mystery to enhance romantic interest.

I began to commune with those who investigate how to read the messages of astronomical observations and knowledge that were encoded and launched through time in Chacoan architecture and rock art. One of these archaeo-astronomers, Ron Sutcliffe, suggested a sacred tryst with the Moon in December at a place 100 miles north of Chaco, called Chimney Rock.

At Chimney Rock, my heart irresistibly opened as my full Man in the Moon, in one of his most dramatic northernmost apparitions in 18.6 years, rose between two magnificent rock pillars (see photo). This spectacle, sacred to both ancestral and modern Puebloan people, is possible only during a major lunar standstill season.

My former ignorance of the lunar standstill cycle is widely shared among modern astronomers, astronomy educators, and lunar explorers. Though they may well be aware of its abstract causes (namely the 5.1-degree inclination of the Moon's orbit to the ecliptic, and the slow regression of the lunar nodes), they are inattentive to how these facts affect naked eye observations of the Moon's monthly dance on the horizon.

My evidence? During my workshops and presentations in the past nine months I have asked them. My polling sample includes a team of instrument scientists associated with the 2008 U.S. mission to the Moon (the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter), and over 100 scientists, engineers, and space lawyers at the recent International Space University symposium whose theme was to address the fundamental question confronting modern exploration: "Why the Moon?"

Modern ways seem to have eclipsed our traditional awareness of how the Moon behaves in the sky. So, I say why not enrich ourselves with both modes of exploring?

I know, I know...they say the proverbial Man in the Moon is a classic example of pareidolia--a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus being mistakenly perceived as something recognizable. I find this highly reminiscent of modern romance.

Meanwhile, my more traditional, naked-eye indulgences this past year have moved me to accept an invitation to a life-long relationship. I adore the way watching my Man in the Moon draws me closer to the pulse of cosmic affairs, both ancient and modern, and I won't give it up.

Last Saturday, I watched him from the foothills of Colorado as he arose--a pinkly apparition of a partially eclipsed full Moon. I took out my cell phone and called all my beloveds, urging them to watch with me.