The Moon has been around since the earliest days of the Solar System. To human beings, there has never been a time when we couldn’t look up in the night sky and either see the Moon hanging there, or know that it would be back the very next night (i.e. a New Moon). And thanks to the development of modern astronomy and space exploration, our understanding of the Moon has grown immensely.
For instance, we know that the Moon formed early in Earth’s history, and that it may have played an important role in the development of life here on Earth. We’ve also learned that Moon is tidally-locked with Earth, which means that one side is constantly facing towards it. But how long is a day on the Moon? With one side facing the Earth and the other side facing out, what constitutes a single day on the lunar surface?
To break it down simply, a day on the Moon lasts as long as 29.5 Earth days. In other words, if you were standing on the surface of the Moon, it would take 29.5 days for the Sun to move all the way across the sky and return to its original position again. However, as with all bodies in the Solar System, distinguishing between different types of days (based on different types of periods) is necessary.
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Orbit and Rotation:
Since ancient times, lunar calendars have been based on thirteen months of 28 days each, reflecting the lunar cycle. But as astronomers have discovered from centuries of studying the Moon’s behavior, the Moon’s orbital period (i.e. the time it takes for the Moon to complete a single orbit around the Earth) is actually the equivalent of about 27.3 Earth days – or 27 days 7 hours 43 minutes and 11.5 seconds, to be precise.
And while the Moon rotates on its own axis, the speed at which it rotates (aka. it’s sidereal rotation) is very slow. In fact, it takes the Moon the equivalent of 27.3 Earth days to complete a single rotation on its axis, the same amount of time it takes to complete a single orbit around Earth. What this means is that the Moon is tidally-locked with Earth.
In other words, the Moon always points the same face towards the Earth, which is why human beings are so familiar with the “face” of the Moon, and refer to the side that faces away from us as the “the dark side”. Therefore, if you were standing on the surface of the Moon, you would always see the Earth in exactly the same position, while the stars and the Sun would continue to move around in the sky.
Sidereal vs. Synodic Day:
However, the Moon’s sidereal rotation is not where we get a the value of a single lunar day from. While it takes 27.3 days for it to orbit the Earth, we have to keep in mind that the Earth is also orbiting the Sun. The Earth returns to its same position in orbit every 365 days. So in order for the Sun to catch up to its same position in the sky from the perspective of the Moon, it has to turn a little more.
The extra 2.2 days is the time for the Moon to catch up in its rotation. And while the amount of time the Moon takes to complete one turn on its axis with respect to the stars is 27.3 days (a sidereal day), the amount of time it takes for the Sun to return to the same position in the sky is called a synodic day, and that’s what takes 29.5 days.
Ergo, a single day on the Moon, with respect to the Sun returning to the same position in the sky, is actually about as long as an average month here on Earth. So if people are planning on living there someday, and aren’t living in the permanently shadowed craters that exist in the southern and norther polar regions, that’s something they might have to get used to.
As with all the bodies of the Solar System, it all comes down to a matter of perspective. And if you’re living on the Moon, your perspective on what constitutes a day will be vastly different from that of a person who was born on Earth.
We have written many interesting articles about how long a day is on the planets of the Solar System. Here’s How Long is a Day on the Other Planets of the Solar System?, How Long is a Day on Mercury?, How Long is a Day on Venus?, How Long is a Day on the Earth?, How Long is a Day on Mars?, How Long is a Day on Jupiter?, How Long is a Day on Saturn?, How Long is a Day on Uranus?, How Long is a Day on Neptune?, and How Long is a Day on Pluto?
For more information, check out NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science page. And here’s NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide.
Astronomy Cast also has a good episode on the subject. Listen here: Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?