The first full moon of 2024 rises this month.
The full moon of January, called the Wolf Moon, will occur at 12:54 p.m. Eastern Time (1754 UTC) on Jan. 25, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. Moonrise in New York City is at 4:56 p.m. that afternoon. The moon will be visible during the day, as it rises about 8 minutes before sunset (which happens at 5:04 p.m.)
The moon becomes full when it is exactly on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun, so the entire Earth-facing side is illuminated. Whether a moon is counted as full or not depends on the position of the moon, rather than one's point of view on Earth, so the timing of the lunar phases is dependent on one's time zone. Although at the moment when the moon reaches full phase it is below the horizon in New York City, that isn't true as one moves eastwards – in London. For example, the moon is full at 5:54 p.m. and it rises at 3:59 p.m. In Paris, the full moon arrives at 6:54 p.m. and moonrise is at 5:03 p.m.
The time zone dependence of the lunar phase timing pushes the full moon to Jan. 26 as one gets to Yangon, Myanmar, where the full moon is at 12:24 a.m. In Sydney, Australia, the moon becomes full at 4:54 a.m., just before it sets the morning of Jan. 26 at 6:06 a.m.
Where the full moon appears in the sky is affected by the seasons and latitude; because the full moon is roughly on the opposite side of the sky as the sun, Northern Hemisphere observers see winter full moons high in the sky — just as the sun is in the summer. For example in New York the full moon will reach its highest altitude — about 71 degrees — at 12:35 a.m. on Jan. 26. Observers further south will see it higher still — in Miami the full moon will be nearly the zenith at 1:01 a.m. local time on Jan. 26 — 89.4 degrees above the southern horizon.
As one goes further south the moon's altitude will decrease, and in the Southern Hemisphere it is low in the sky, like the sun in winter. In Cape Town, for example, the moon will reach only about 33 degrees altitude above the northern horizon at its highest on Jan. 26 at 1:14 a.m.
Another thing that full moons or near-full moons do is not cross the local meridian — the line in the sky that goes through the zenith from north to south. The moon moves visibly eastwards against the background stars, by about one of its own diameters every hour. This is relatively fast — and it means as the full moon approaches the moon can make a full circuit of the sky in 24 hours, but it has moved east just far enough that it doesn't cross the meridian in that amount of time; it needs another hour or so to do it.
Full moons have a tendency to wash out fainter, naked-eye stars in the sky, but observers can look for planets, which are bright enough that even the moon doesn't obscure them.
On Jan. 25, just after sunset, it's possible to see both Saturn and Jupiter. From New York (and other mid-northern latitude cities) Saturn will be low in the southwest; in New York City it sets at 7:35 p.m. and by 6 p.m. is only about 15 degrees high. Jupiter, meanwhile, is much better situated, as by 6 p.m. it will be almost due south and two thirds of the way to the zenith from the horizon, at 62 degrees. Jupiter is the brighter of the two and easier to spot quickly.
The other planets don't come up until after midnight, and the first will be Venus, which rises in New York at 5:11 a.m. on Jan. 26, two hours before sunrise (which is at 7:11 a.m. local time). Mercury follows at 6:05 a.m. After Mercury, Mars rises at 6:09 a.m. By 6:45 a.m. the sky is getting lighter – civil twilight (when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon) is at 6:42 a.m. – and Mars will only be about 5 degrees high in the southeast, so it may be very difficult to see. Venus is 13 degrees high, and below it is Mercury at 6 degrees high. Mars will be just to the left and below Mercury. Of the three planets Venus will remain visible the longest as it is brighter; almost 50 times as bright as Mercury.
As in the Northern Hemisphere, Jupiter and Saturn will be low in the western half of the sky. It being summer in the Southern Hemisphere the sun sets later, so there is less time to see the planets before they too, set. In Melbourne, Australia, the full moon is at 4:54 a.m. on Jan. 26, with moonrise at 8:45 p.m. the previous evening. At that point, the sky will still be somewhat light; sunset is at 8:39 p.m. local time. By civil twilight (which is often when street lights start coming on) at 9:08 p.m. Saturn will appear only 11 degrees high in the west, with Jupiter at 33 degrees in the northwest. Saturn sets at 10:13 p.m. local time, and Jupiter follows at 12:45 a.m. Jan. 26, just after midnight.
Venus, Mercury and Mars will be in the morning sky; in Melbourne (and locations of similar latitude) Venus is the first to rise at 3:46 a.m. local time, followed by Mercury at 4:46 a.m. The Red Planet, Mars is the last, at 4:50 a.m. All three planets will form a rough line starting with Venus at the top left, Mercury to the right and below it, and Mars close to Mercury, below it and to the right. By 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 26 Mars will be about six and a half degrees above the east-southeastern. Sunrise is at 6:26 a.m. in Melbourne, and at that point Venus is a full 27 degrees high in the East; this means that there is a good opportunity to see all three planets in the predawn sky.
Stars and constellations
The skies of the Northern Hemisphere are full of bright stars – Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Canis Major are all in roughly the same patch of sky. Each is made up of enough first- and second-magnitude stars that they are visible even from light-polluted locations; the three stars marking Orion's belt are obvious even in cities like New York or Los Angeles. On Jan. 25 all of those constellations are well above the eastern horizon by 8 p.m. in mid-northern latitudes; one can look at the full moon and turn to the right; Gemini will be just above where the moon is; with Pollux and Castor, the stars marking the heads of the Twins, appearing almost vertical relative to each other (Pollux will be on the bottom).
About level with the moon will be Procyon, the bright star in Canis Minor, the Little Dog. Turning further right (westwards) one will see Sirius, the brightest star in Canis Major, and above that the three stars of Orion's Belt along with Betelgeuse (which will be on the left of the Belt) and Rigel (which will be on the right). Betelgeuse is recognizable by its reddish color, and Rigel by its contrasting blue-white.
The Southern latitudes also have some famous constellations (and bright stars) during their summer months. From mid-southern latitudes by about 10 p.m. one can see not only Orion, Canis Major and Taurus (they will be "upside down" and to the north) but also Carina, Vela and Puppis, the three constellations that are traditionally associated with Argo Navis, the ship of Jason. If one draws a line between Betelgeuse and Sirius one is in the middle of Puppis, the Poop Deck, and Canopus, the brightest star in Carina, the Keel, forms a triangle with Sirius and Rigel that points roughly south.
Looking towards the southern horizon one will see the Southern Cross rising in the southeast; from the latitude of Melbourne or Cape Town the constellation doesn't set; it is circumpolar. The crossbar of the cross points to Centaurus the Centaur and Alpha Centauri. A southern Hemisphere sky watcher can also trace Eridanus, the River, from its beginning near the "foot" of Orion (the star Rigel) all the way towards the west to its end at the star called Achernar, known for being the least spherical star in the sky as it rotates so fast that it is flattened – the equatorial radius is a full 50% larger than its polar radius.
Full moon names
The January full moon is often called the Wolf Moon, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac, which may date back to Native American tribes and early Colonial times when wolves would howl outside villages. The names of the moon are often a combination of terms settlers brought from Europe and those of local Native people; the term "wolf moon" is likely European.
According to the Ontario Native Literacy Project, the Ojibwe people called it Mnido Giizis, the Spirit Moon, marking a time of prayer and contemplation, and connected with the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights – the Ojibwe's traditional territory extends into northern Quebec, so the association is unsurprising as the auroras are more visible as one moves north, and the nights are longer. Among the Cree peoples it was sometimes called Opawahcikanasis in the Woodland Cree dialect, meaning the Frost Exploding Moon. In many parts of Canada the sound of trees crackling from the winter frost is common as temperatures fall in January and February.
Traditions differ in other parts of the Americas as the environment changes from the northeastern woodlands where Algonquin-speaking peoples live. For example in the Southwest, the Diné (Navajo) call the month of January – as measured from the new moon -- Yas Nilt’ees. The name relates to melting the snow, which Diné people would do for water in winter because of the drier landscape they lived in.
Southern Hemisphere peoples would be observing their summer, when nights are shorter and the weather warmer. The Māori of New Zealand measured lunar months between new moons, so the full moon of January falls in the middle of the month called Hui-tanguru, or "The foot of Rūhī (a summer star) now rests upon the earth." Rūhī refers to a star in Scorpio, near Antares. In late January, Scorpius — which appears in the reverse orientation from what we see in the Northern Hemisphere — tends to be below the southern horizon until after midnight.
To the Māori, Scorpius is part of a much larger constellation, and Te Waka o Mairerangi, the central curving line of stars in Scorpius, is the keel. In South Africa, the January moon marks the month of uMasingana, which is when certain fruits and vegetables start to ripen.
In China, the full moon will fall in the twelfth month of the traditional lunar calendar, Làyuè, or "Preserved Month" which refers to preserving foods for the spring festivals. In Vietnam, the twelfth month of the lunar calendar, which is based on the Chinese one, is called Tháng Chạp.
It is notable that many lunar calendars have to have what is called an intercalary, or "leap" month at intervals to keep the lunar months aligned with the seasons. This is one reason why, for example, the dates for Christian religious festivals such as Easter or the Jewish holiday of Passover have varying dates but they are always in the spring.
Similarly, the Native American, Māori and Zulu peoples all had strategies for adding days to the end of a 12-month span of lunations, in order to keep the calendar in sync with the seasons. The "drift" happens because lunar cycles are only 29.5 days long, so a span of 12 lunations won't add up to 365 days. Jewish and Chinese calendars use a leap month system with an extra month added every three years, while the Ojibwe counted 13 lunar cycles in a year to begin with, where a month (typically in July or August) would be counted with a different "number" as some calendar months have more than one full moon.
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Jesse Emspak is a freelance journalist who has contributed to several publications, including Space.com, Scientific American, New Scientist, Smithsonian.com and Undark. He focuses on physics and cool technologies but has been known to write about the odder stories of human health and science as it relates to culture. Jesse has a Master of Arts from the University of California, Berkeley School of Journalism, and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Rochester. Jesse spent years covering finance and cut his teeth at local newspapers, working local politics and police beats. Jesse likes to stay active and holds a fourth degree black belt in Karate, which just means he now knows how much he has to learn and the importance of good teaching.