The full moon of February, called the Snow Moon, will occur in the U.S. during the morning of Feb. 19. It will be at its fullest about 6 hours after reaching perigee, the nearest point from Earth in its orbit — creating a "supermoon," a full moon that is slightly larger than average.
The moon becomes officially full on Feb. 19 at 10:53 a.m. EST (1553 GMT), according to NASA's SkyCal. For skywatchers in New York City, the moon will rise at 5:46 p.m. on Feb. 19 and set the next day at 7:35 a.m., according to the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO). The moon will be in the constellation Leo, and it will rise about 10 minutes after sunset.
The full moon happens when the moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the sun. Most of the time the moon is fully illuminated by the sun's light. Once in a while, though, the moon's orbit carries it within the shadow of Earth, as happened in January during the "Super Blood Wolf Moon" total lunar eclipse. [Amazing Photos of the Super Blood Wolf Moon of 2019!]
When the moon enters the Earth’s shadow it doesn’t go completely black — it turns a deep red color because of light refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere. (If you were standing on the moon you would see the sun eclipsed by the Earth, and the Earth would be surrounded by a bright red-orange ring). February's full moon will "miss" Earth's shadow, because the moon's orbit is slightly tilted (or inclined) 5 degrees with respect to the plane of Earth's orbit, and therefore the Earth won't be directly between the sun and the moon.
Why this moon is "super"
Though there won't be another eclipse in February, the full moon will be a "supermoon" — which means it will appear about 10 percent larger than average, because on Feb. 19 at 4:06 a.m. EST (0906 GMT) the moon will reach perigee, the closest point in its orbit around the Earth. The average distance between the moon and Earth is about 240,000 miles (385,000 kilometers). At perigee, that distance is about 220,000 miles (350,000 km), whereas at apogee it is about 406,000 km (250,000 miles). During this supermoon, the moon will be 221,681 miles (356,761 km) from Earth, according to timeanddate.com. It will be the closest perigee of 2019, and it's the second supermoon of the year.
Through binoculars or a small telescope, the full moon will appear almost unbearably bright. While the brightness isn't dangerous to one's eyes, it can be hard to spot details on the lunar surface. That is due to the lack of shadows to give any contrast. That said, moon filters are available that can make some features, such as major craters, or the lunar maria (the dark-colored regions), stand out better. If one waits a few days after the full moon or observes a few days before, it's easier to see the features at the edge of the lunar disk, when the shadows start to bring out more detail. [Infographic: How to Observe the Moon]
A stellar conjunction
Being in the constellation Leo, the full moon will be in conjunction (sharing the same celestial longitude) with the star Regulus, the brightest in that constellation. The moon will appear to pass about four to five lunar diameters (about 2.5 degrees) north of the star. The conjunction occurs at 8:08 a.m. EST (1308 GMT) on Feb. 19.
On the east coast of the U.S., the sun will be up before the conjunction occurs, but observers in the Rocky Mountain states and westward will be able to catch the conjunction. In Denver, the conjunction will occur at 6:08 a.m. MST, about 40 minutes before sunrise. Residents of the Pacific Coast can see the conjunction at 5:08 a.m. local time, with the sunrise coming earlier the farther one moves south. For example, in Seattle, the sun will rise at 7:08 a.m. PST, while in Los Angeles the sun will rise at 6:34 a.m. PST. Hawaii has the longest period between sunrise and the conjunction; the conjunction itself is at 3:08 a.m. HST and the sun rises at 6:59 a.m. HST.
Venus snuggles up with Saturn
Another conjunction, on Feb. 18, is between Venus and Saturn, which for New York City observers will be at 8:50 a.m. EST, according to the skywatching site in-the-sky.org. The moment of conjunction will be after sunrise, but the pair will be visible low in the predawn southeastern sky, rising at 4:32 a.m., and won't get more than 16 degrees above the horizon before dawn at about 6:37 a.m., so you will need a place relatively clear of buildings and trees to see it.
Venus is bright enough that it is easy to spot (and can even be seen when the sky has started to turn a dark blue, at the start of civil dawn, when the sun is about six degrees below the horizon), and the planets will be about a degree from each other, or about two lunar diameters.
The conjunction will be easier to see as one moves south, because the plane of the ecliptic — the line marking the Earth’s orbit in the sky -- is inclined at a steeper angle to the horizon. Since the planets generally are all within a few degrees of the ecliptic, they tend to appear higher up as one moves south. From Miami, for example, Venus and Saturn will rise at about 4:31 a.m., reaching an altitude of about 24 degrees before dawn at 6:37 a.m. Near the equator, such as the city of Quito, in Ecuador, Saturn and Venus will rise at 3:29 a.m. and reach an altitude of 35 degrees before dawn breaks at 6:09 a.m. local time.
Mercury meets Neptune
Another conjunction around the night of the full moon is between Mercury and Neptune. The actual moment of conjunction will be at 6:02 a.m. EST (1102 GMT) on Feb. 19.
For skywatchers in New York, Mercury will be below the horizon. But the two planets will be within less than a degree of each other by the evening, when they will be in the southwestern sky.
Both can be hard to spot — Neptune is invisible without a small telescope or a large pair of binoculars, and the planets will be no more than 9 degrees above the horizon when the sky gets dark enough to spot Mercury, at about 5:49 p.m. local time, according to In-the-sky.org. Both will be in the constellation Aquarius.
The full moon will share the sky with a number of bright winter constellations. During February, Orion, the Hunter is visible almost all night, starting the evening high in the east-southeast sky.
Near Orion are Taurus and Gemini, and just to the southeast of Orion is Canis Major, the Big Dog, home to Sirius, the brightest single star in the sky. All three constellations are bright enough that they don't get overwhelmed by the full moon, even in urban areas.
How the "Snow Moon" got its name
The Old Farmer’s Almanac mentions the February full moon’s name as “Snow Moon” because in mid-Northern latitudes that’s when the weather tends to be coldest and snowiest. According to the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition, the Ojibwe (or Aanishnabeg) peoples called it "Mikwa Giizis," the Bear Moon. The Cree called it the "Kisipisim," or the Great Moon, and it is described as a time when "animals do not move around much, and trappers have little chance of catching them."
The Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest call the February full moon "S'eek Dís," or Black Bear Moon, while the Haida call it "Hlgit’ún Kungáay," or "Goose moon," according to the Tlingit Moon and Tide Teaching Resource published by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
In the Southern Hemisphere, February is during the summer, and the Māori of New Zealand described the lunar month in February to March (as measured between the successive new moons, with the full moon halfway between) as "Poutū-te-rangi," or "the crops are now harvested," according to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
In China, the traditional lunar calendar calls the February lunation the first month, or "Zhēngyuè," and it is when the traditional Chinese Lunar New Year is celebrated. In 2019, the night of the full moon falls on the lantern festival, which marks the high point of the traditional Chinese New Year festivities.