General Astronomy/Phases of the Moon

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General Astronomy
The Celestial Sphere Phases of the Moon Eclipses

Like the stars and planets, the Moon doesn't stay fixed in the sky but slowly moves as the Earth rotates and as the Moon moves through its orbit about the Earth. To someone taking a casual glance at the Moon, it seems as fixed as the stars. But observation of either the Moon or the stars over a period of several hours will reveal their diurnal (daily) motion across the sky. The Moon rises and sets each day. An observer who watches the Moon over the course of many days will notice the Moon moving not only with the stars, but among them. Every month, the Moon completes one fewer pass across the sky than the stars have completed. We see this because of the Moon's orbit about the Earth. As the Moon progresses through its orbit, its rising and setting times change. Each day, the Moon rises and sets fifty minutes later than the day before.

The moon usually takes 27 days to rotate once on its axis. So any place on the surface of the moon experiences about 13 days of sunlight, followed by 13 days of darkness. Temperatures on the Moon range from -153 C at night to 253 C during the day. For example if you were standing on the surface of the moon during sunlight hours it would be blazing hot. When the sun goes down, the temperature automatically drop 250 degrees in just a matter of moments. Furthermore, there are craters around the North and South poles of the moon which never seen the sunlight. These dark places would always be as cool as -153 C. However, there are nearby mountain peaks that are covered in continuous sunlight, and would always be hot.

The "dividing line" between the light and dark halves of the globe is called the terminator, as it terminates the area of darkness (and also that of daylight).

Typically, one-half of the Moon will be lit up by the Sun, while the half facing away from the Sun remains dark. (The only exception occurs during a lunar eclipse, when the Earth blocks the light falling on the lit side of the Moon.) The part illuminated by the Sun is not, it should be emphasized, always the same portion of the Moon's surface! Like the Earth, the Moon turns on its axis, exposing different areas at different times. In combination with the orbital revolution of the Moon around the Earth, this phenomenon creates the phases of the Moon as seen from Earth. The phrase "Dark side of the Moon" arose before the age of artificial satellites and the back side of the Moon could not be observed. Hence, the that one side was unknown or "dark".

The tilt of the moon’s spin axis is only 1.54 degrees and as a result, lunar seasons are barely noticeable in most locations on the Moon. However, at the North and South poles, the height of the sun above the horizon varies by more than 3 degrees over the course of the year. In other words, it affects the percentage of sunlit regions and surface temperatures at the poles. Furthermore, the coldest areas are located in doubly shadowed regions inside small craters, in which they are located within the permanently shadowed regions of larger craters. Temperatures are as low as 35K (-238 C or -397 F) in these areas, even at noon on the warmest day of the year.

Some half of the Moon is always illuminated but the fraction of the illuminated part or the Moon's phases directly depend on the relative positions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun. Simply put, it's a matter of how much of the daylight side of the Moon we can see from our current viewing angle. The phase will depend on how much of the side facing toward us is illuminated at any given time. The sketch below illustrates the phases of the moon for various Earth-Moon-Sun positions (the Sun is presumed to be off of the diagram to the right):


Next to each "Moon" is a black-and-white sketch of the phase as it would be seen from Earth when the Moon is in that position. When the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun, the sunlit side of the Moon is facing completely away from us, and therefore we have the dark "New Moon". When the Moon reaches the other side of the Earth, the sunlit side will be fully toward us, and we have the "Full Moon". As the Moon moves from New to Full and the sunlit side grows increasingly large, we say the Moon is waxing; as we see less, in the decline from Full to New Moon, we say it is waning.

Midway between the Full Moon and New Moon, half of the sunlit side of the Moon is visible from the Earth. Because a half of the half illuminated Moon can be seen, this is referred to as a "quarter Moon". When the Moon is waxing and reaches this position, it's called the "first quarter Moon"; when waning, the "third quarter Moon." When less than a quarter-moon is visible, it's referred to as a "crescent Moon" - waxing crescent or waning crescent, as appropriate. When more than a quarter-moon is visible, it's referred to as a "gibbous moon", again, waxing or waning.

The Moon's orbit and rotation speed is just such that the Moon always shows the same side to Earth, aside from only a slight "wobble." The pattern of markings on the side facing Earth is very familiar in history and culture. Western society has long imagined a face in the markings — the "Man in the Moon." Other cultures have seen a woman, a rabbit, a frog or other creatures. The Moon always shows this same face to Earth because its rotation is "locked" with its orbit, for reasons we will see later, when we discuss gravity. More precisely, the time it takes for the Moon to complete a trip in its orbit is the same as the time it takes for the Moon to rotate once around its axis. Because we see the Moon moving around us, it appears as though the Moon isn't turning at all.

If you stood on the Moon and looked up at Earth in the sky, you would see that it never rises, never sets, and never moves in the sky at all. Imagine, for example, standing at the middle of the face of the Moon that we see. From there, the Earth would always remain straight overhead. If you stood at the edge of the face we see from Earth — the "limb" — you would always see the Earth on your horizon.

Up to now, we have considered the time for the Moon to complete one orbit around the Earth to be the same as the time for it to pass once through its series of phases, but this is not quite right. The Moon's phase at a particular point in its orbit changes as the Earth goes around the Sun. Once the Earth has gone halfway around the Sun, the position of the Moon for a given phase has also moved halfway around the orbit, since the Sun is on the opposite side. Thus, it takes a little longer for the Moon to go through its phases than it does for it to go through its orbit about the Earth.

Suppose a full moon marks the beginning of both the period of the orbit of the Moon about the Earth and the period of the orbit of the Earth about the Sun. At the time of full Moon, the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned. Once the Moon returns to that position in its orbit, the Earth has moved a little around the Sun. Now, the Moon is not aligned with the Earth and the Sun. It takes about two days before the Moon has moved back into alignment with the Earth and Sun line (synodic month). The time for the Moon to complete an orbit, called a sidereal month, is about 27 days and 8 hours. The time to move through its phases, a synodic month, is about 29 days and 12 hours.

General Astronomy
The Celestial Sphere Phases of the Moon Eclipses