The Supermoon Illusion

by VirtualAstro on March 16, 2011

Wow, the moon's bigger than that tree! Credit starryskies.com

You’ve probably all seen it before, a huge Full Moon sitting on the horizon and you wonder why it looks much bigger than at other times? It isn’t, really; it’s an illusion.

And now, if you have heard about the close approach of the moon, or so called “Supermoon” on March 19th and are concerned about the disasters and mayem it may cause, there is no need to worry. And surely, when this so-called “Supermoon” occurs on March 19th — at its closest approach to Earth in two decades — people will indeed report that the Moon looks much bigger than normal. But it won’t really be much bigger in the sky at all. It’s all an illusion, a trick of the eye.

The moon does have an effect on the Earth with its gravity affecting ocean tides and even land to a lesser extent, but the moon on the 19th won’t interact with our planet any differently than any other time it’s been at its closest (also known as perigee).

If anything we may get slightly stronger tides, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The Moon orbits the Earth in an elliptical orbit, meaning that it is not always the same distance from the Earth. The closest the Moon ever gets to Earth (called perigee) is 364,000km, and the furthest is ever gets (Apogee) is around 406,000km (these figures vary, and in fact this Full Moon on March 19, 2011 will see a slightly closer approach of 357,000km).

So the percentage difference in distance between the average perigee and the average apogee is ~10%. That is, if the Full Moon occurs at perigee it can be up to 10% closer (and therefore larger) than if it occurred at apogee.

This is quite a significant difference, and so it is worth pointing out that the Moon does appear to be different sizes at different times throughout the year.

Moon at Perigee and Apogee Credit NASA

But that’s NOT what causes the Moon to look huge on the horizon. Such a measly 10% difference in size cannot account for the fact that people describe the Moon as “huge” when they see it low on the horizon.

What’s really causing the Moon to look huge on such occasions is the circuitry in your brain. It’s an optical illusion, so well known that it has its own name: the Moon Illusion.

If you measure the angular size of the Full Moon in the sky it varies between 36 arc minutes (0.6 degrees) at perigee, and 30 arc minutes (0.5 degrees) at apogee, but this difference will occur within a number of lunar orbits (months), not over the course of the night as the Moon rises. In fact if you measure the angular size of the Full Moon just after it rises, when it’s near the horizon, and then again hours later once it’s high in the sky, these two numbers are identical: it doesn’t change size at all.

So why does your brain think it has? There’s no clear consensus on this, but the two most reasonable explanations are as follows:

1. When the Moon is low on the horizon there are lots of objects (hills, houses, trees etc) against which you can compare its size. When it’s high in the sky it’s there in isolation. This might create something akin to the Ebbinghaus Illusion, where identically sized objects appear to be different sizes when placed in different surroundings.

Ebbinghaus Illusion – the two orange circles are exactly the same size

2. When seen against nearer foreground objects which we know to be far away from us, our brain thinks something like this: “wow, that Moon is even further than those trees, and they’re really far away. And despite how far away it is, it still looks pretty big. That must mean the Moon is huge!”.

These two factors combine to fool our brains into “seeing” a larger Moon when its near the horizon compared with when it’s overhead, even when our eyes – and our instruments – see it as exactly the same size.

Source: “Moon Illusion” on Dark Sky Diary Special thanks to Steve Owens

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