Tonight, Look For A Rare (But Not Quite Blue) Moon

People are silhouetted against a nearly full moon as they ride an attraction at Worlds of Fun amusement park Thursday, in Kansas City, Mo. July 31 marks the second full moon of the month, a rare occurrence that has come to be known as a "blue moon." (AP)
People are silhouetted against a nearly full moon as they ride an attraction at Worlds of Fun amusement park Thursday, in Kansas City, Mo. July 31 marks the second full moon of the month, a rare occurrence that has come to be known as a "blue moon." (AP)

Get ready for a very rare event tonight – a blue moon.

But don't expect to see a new hue. A blue moon, at least according to the modern definition of the term, has nothing to do with color. Instead, it simply means a second full moon in the same calendar month.

As NASA explains in the video above: "most blue moons appear pale grey and white, just like the moon you've seen on any other night."

And, that doesn't happen very often (the last time was in August 2012), so "once in a blue moon" is a phrase still worthy of a rare occurrence.

This month, there was a full moon on July 1 and tonight, the last day of July, there's another.

But the meaning of a "blue moon" has changed over time. It originally meant, according to folklore, something ludicrous more than rare. According to a 2012 Sky & Telescope magazine article that: "[The] very earliest uses of the term were remarkably like saying the Moon is made of green cheese. Both were obvious absurdities, about which there could be no doubt. "He would argue the Moon was blue" was taken by the average person of the 16th century as we take "He'd argue that black is white."

But, a secondary definition – the one about two full moons in a month – popped up (as an error, it turned out) in a 1946 Sky & Telescope. Years later, in 1980, the mistake was amplified by the public radio program StarDate (and later, the board game Trivial Pursuit). It stuck.

Philip Hiscock, a folklorist at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Texas astronomer Donald W. Olson "helped the magazine sort all this out and admit the mistake back in 1999. The error led to the widely accepted definition of blue moon today: the second full moon in a given month. A blue moon occurs roughly once every 2.7 years," according to Space.com.

Even so, "on rare occasions, the moon can turn [the color] blue," according to the NASA video. It says: "A truly blue moon usually requires a volcanic eruption. Back in 1883, for example, people saw blue moons almost every night after the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa exploded, with a force of a 100 megaton nuclear bomb."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.