Moonrise in Real Time

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Celestial movement at human speed.

Maybe the closest I've ever come to a religious experience was watching the full moon rise out of the almost-infinite emptiness of Wyoming. (It might have helped I was driving to my wedding.) What I love best about the moonrise is that it happens all the time, and yet, there is this urgency, a human timescale urgency, to an event that occurs between the sun, 93 million miles away, the moon, and the Earth. You can miss the moonrise in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee.

Herman Melville, commenting on Goethe's glory and "flummery" to Nathaniel Hawthorne (full-disclosure: Hawthorne was a contributor to this magazine), came close to describing the feeling this provokes in me. "This 'all' feeling, though, there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer's day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling," he wrote. (He continues: "But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion." And how, Melville. And. How.)

But the "all" feeling is what I get from the collision of the space scale, cosmic and vast, with the human scale, ephemeral and tiny. Which is why NASA's latest Astronomy "Photo" of the Day (the video you see above) is so spectacular. It dramatizes this arrangement of figures about as well as I could imagine.

A few minutes before moonrise on the 28th of this month, astrophotographer Mark Gee set up a little more than a mile away from the outlook in the video above with a pro-level Canon DSLR, a very long lens, and an extender that turned his camera into the equivalent of a small telescope. (It wasn't the first time he'd tried to get this shot, but it was the first time it worked.) He hit record on the video just before moonrise started and what you see above is the real-time action.

So, take another look at the video. This isn't a time-lapse. This is celestial movement happening at real, human speed.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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