Image: Moon
Adrian Dennis  /  AFP - Getty Images
The moon shines Thursday night in the skies above the English town of Hartley Wintney, 40 miles west of London, with an illuminated Christmas tree star in the foreground.
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updated 12/28/2012 1:44:33 PM ET 2012-12-28T18:44:33

The final full moon of the year rises on Friday night to cap a year of amazing lunar sky shows. While the bright moon will easily outshine other celestial objects, there is more than meets the eye to Earth's nearest neighbor.

The December full moon is also called the "long-night's moon" since it is the closest full moon to the northern winter solstice (when the nights are longest). This full moon will be visible for the longest amount of time.

From New York, for instance, moonrise on Thursday occurred at 4:17 p.m. ET, and the moon set at 7:12 a.m. Friday morning. That adds up to 14 hours and 55 minutes.

Moon-watching myth
Contrary to popular belief, the full moon not the best time to observe the moon with binoculars or a telescope.

Normally, even with just small optical power we can see a wealth of detail on its surface. But during the full moon phase, the moon appears flat and one-dimensional, as well as dazzlingly bright to the eye.

It is only later in the weekend and into next week that the moon's best features will stand out. As the moon wanes to its gibbous phase, and then to last quarter, those lunar features close to the terminator — the variable line between the sunlit and darkened portions of the moon — will appear to stand out in sharp, clear relief. [Amazing Moon Photos of 2012]

The moon will arrive at last quarter phase on Jan. 4 at 11:58 p.m. ET, when its disk will be exactly 50 percent illuminated.

How bright, the full moon?
How does the moon's brightness compare at that moment with when it's full? Most people may believe the moon is half as bright, but in reality astronomers say that the last-quarter moon is only one-eleventh as bright as full. This is because the moon is not a smooth sphere, but has a myriad of craters, mountains and valleys that cast long, distinct shadows across the lunar landscape.

Interestingly, a first-quarter moon is actually slightly brighter than a last-quarter moon, because at first quarter the illuminated half of the moon displays less of the dark surface features known as the "maria," popularly referred to as lunar seas.

And believe or not, it isn’t until just 2.4 days before or after full that the moon actually becomes half as bright as full!

Lunar cycles
Here are some interesting lunar calendar facts that the famed Belgian astronomical calculator Jean Meeus has compiled concerning the phases of the moon.

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All are cyclical, the most noteworthy being the so-called Metonic Cycle that was independently discovered by the Greek astronomer Meton (born about 460 B.C.). This is a 19-year cycle, after which time the phases of the moon are repeated on the same days of the year, or approximately so.

Take, for instance, Friday’s full moon. Nineteen years from now, in 2031, there’ll be another full moon on Dec. 28.

Another moon cycle fact: After two years, the preceding lunar phase occurs on or very nearly the same calendar date. So in 2014, it will be the first-quarter moon that occurs on Dec. 28.

After eight years, the same lunar phases repeat, but occurring one or two days later in the year. Ancient Greek astronomers called this eight-year cycle the "octaeteris." Indeed, in 2020, a full moon occurs on Dec. 29.

Finally, in our Gregorian calendar, 372 years provides an excellent long-period cycle for the recurrence of a particular phase on a given date. Therefore, we know with absolute certainty that the same full moon that shines down on us on Dec. 28 of 2012 will also be shining on Dec. 28 in the year 2384.

So mark your lunar calendars, and enjoy the lunar display!

If you snap an amazing photo of the year's final full moon and would like to share it with Space.com for a potential story or gallery, submit photos and comments, including your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at: spacephotos@space.com.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for TheNew York Times  and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York. Follow Space.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: 50 years of views from the moon

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  1. Up-close exploration of the moon, Earth's only natural satellite, began in 1959 when the Soviet Union launched its Luna 1 spacecraft on a flyby mission. NASA quickly followed up with missions of its own. Since then, the Europeans, Japan, China and India have launched their own lunar exploration programs. This view shows the moon as seen from the international space station. Click the "Next" arrow above to check out 11 images from the moon made over the last 50 years. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 1959: Far side in full view

    In October 1959, the Soviet Union's Luna 3 spacecraft - the third successfully launched to the moon - made history as the first probe to image the far side of the moon. The photos were fixed and dried on the spacecraft and beamed back to Earth. Though fuzzy by today's standards, the images showed stark differences from the near side, including relatively few dark areas, called lunar maria. (RSA via NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 1966: A restored ‘Earthrise'

    In 1966 and 1967, NASA sent a series of Lunar Orbiter spacecraft to collect detailed images of moon's surface in preparation for the Apollo program. The tapes were then put in storage. Decades later, researchers with the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project collected the vintage hardware required to play back the imagery. That imagery was digitized , reproducing the images at a much higher resolution than previously possible. On Nov. 11, 2008, the project researchers released this enhanced photograph of Earth rising above the lunar surface, originally made by Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966. (LOIRP / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 1968: The most famous 'Earthrise'

    On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders made history as the first humans to orbit the moon. They were scouting its surface for a suitable landing spot for future missions. But the sight of Earth rising above the moon's horizon caught their - and the world's - attention. The photograph, called "Earthrise," is among the most famous ever made from the moon. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 1969: One small step

    On July 20, 1969, an estimated 1 billion people around the world were glued to television screens to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, climb down from the lunar module spacecraft for a stroll on the moon. As his foot touched the lunar surface, he famously said "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." This image is a black-and-white reproduction from the telecast, showing Armstrong stepping down from the lunar module's ladder. (NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 1969: Man on the moon

    Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, shown here, accompanied Armstrong for the famous walk on the moon. This iconic image is one of the few that shows Armstrong on the lunar surface - as seen in the reflection on the spacesuit's visor. The astronauts walked around on the lunar surface for about two and a half hours. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 1994: Looking for ice

    This mosaic image of the moon's southern polar region, made by the Clementine spacecraft in 1994, suggested that the region could harbor water ice within regions of its craters that are never lit by the sun. The water ice would be left over from impacting comets. Scientists have debated the evidence for and against water ice at the poles ever since the Clementine discovery. The current era of lunar exploration could resolve the debate. If water ice exists, it could help quench the thirst of future human colonists and be used to make fuel for rockets. (NASA / JPL / USGS) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 2006: European moon probe crashes

    On Sept. 3, 2006, the European Space Agency's SMART-1 spacecraft went out with a bang - a planned crash landing into a volcanic plain called the Lake of Excellence. The impact, shown here, was captured by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. (The black lines are a processing error due to the brightness of the event.) The spacecraft was launched in 2003 primarily to test an ion propulsion system, which uses energy captured by the sun to produce a stream of charged particles. The slow-and-steady propulsion system may be used on future interplanetary missions. (Christian Veillet / CFHT via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 2007: China targets the moon

    China made its first major strides in the lunar exploration game with the launch of the Chang'e 1 spacecraft in October 2007. The orbiter was sent to make a detailed, 3-D map of the moon's surface. Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled the first image at a ceremony in Beijing, shown here. Chang'e 1's 16-month mission ended with a controlled crash. The country reportedly plans to launch lunar rovers in 2010 and 2017, and a manned mission to the moon by 2020. (Huang Jingwen / XINHUA NEWS AGENCY) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 2008: India joins the lunar club

    The Indian Space Research Organization successfully launched its Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft on Oct. 22, 2008, for a mapping mission to the moon. A probe released from the mothership took this picture of the lunar surface during its descent to a planned crash landing at the south pole. The Indian space agency plans to use this and other data for a lunar rover mission in 2011 and, eventually, a manned mission. (ISRO via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 2009: Japan orbiter watches eclipse

    Some eclipse enthusiasts travel the globe to glimpse alignments of the sun, Earth and moon. Japan's Kaguya probe did them one better: It shot this sequence of a Feb. 10, 2009, eclipse from its lunar orbit. The image shows the view of the sun from the moon mostly covered by Earth. The "ring" appears dark at the bottom because it is obscured by the night-darkened limb of the moon. The Kaguya orbiter was launched in September 2007 to study the moon's origin and evolution. It made a controlled crash landing on the moon in June 2009. (JAXA / NHK) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 2009: NASA goes back to the moon

    On June 18, 2009, NASA launched two spacecraft to the moon to map its surface in unprecedented detail, scout for future landing sites, and smash probes into a permanently shaded crater in hopes of resolving a longstanding debate over whether such regions contain water ice. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will orbit both poles for a year, and its mission could be extended to serve as a communications relay for future lunar missions. This is one of the first pictures sent back by the orbiter. LRO's sibling, the crater-smacking LCROSS probe, is due to impact the moon's south pole in October. (NASA / GSFC / ASU) Back to slideshow navigation
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