How Long is a Day on the Moon?

A photo of the full moon, taken from Apollo 11 on its way home to Earth, from about 18,520 km (10,000 nm) away. Credit: NASA

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.

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?

Source:

The Orbit of the Moon

Since time immemorial, people have been staring up at the Moon with awe and wonder. For as long as there has been life on this planet, the Moon has been orbiting it. And as time went on, scholars and astronomers began to observe it regularly and calculate its orbit. In so doing, they learned some rather interesting things about its behavior.

For example, the Moon has an orbital period that is the same as its rotational period. In essence, it is tidally locked to the Earth, which means that it always presents the same face to us as it orbits around our planet. And during the course of its orbit, it also appears larger and smaller in the sky, which is due to the fact it is sometimes closer than at other times.

Orbital Parameters:

For starters, the Moon follows an elliptical path around the Earth – with an average eccentricity of 0.0549 – which means that its orbit is not perfectly circular. Its average orbital distance is 384,748 km, which ranges from 364,397 km at its closest, to 406,731 km at its most distant.

Comparison of the Moon's apparent size at lunar perigee–apogee. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Tomruen
Comparison of the Moon’s apparent size at lunar perigee–apogee. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Tomruen

This non-circular orbit causes variations in the Moon’s angular speed and apparent size as it moves towards and away from an observer on Earth. When it’s full and at its closest point to Earth (perigee), the Moon can look over 10% bigger, and 30% brighter than when it’s at a more distant point in its orbit (apogee).

The mean inclination of the Moon’s orbit to the ecliptic plane (i.e. the apparent path of the Sun through the sky) is 5.145°. Because of this inclination, the moon is above the horizon at the North and South Pole for almost two weeks every month, even though the Sun is below the horizon for six months out of the year.

The Moon’s sidereal orbital period and rotational period are the same – 27.3 days. This phenomena, known as synchronous rotation, is what allows for the same hemisphere to be facing Earth all the time. Hence why the far side is colloquially referred to as the “Dark Side”, but this name is misleading. As the Moon orbits Earth, different parts are in sunlight or darkness at different times and neither side is permanently dark or illuminated.

Because Earth is moving as well – rotating on its axis as it orbits the Sun – the Moon appears to orbit us every 29.53 days. This is known as its synodic period, which is the amount of time it takes for the Moon to reappear in the same place in the sky. During a synodic period, the Moon will go through changes in its appearance, which are known as “phases“.

Lunar Cycle:

These changes in appearance are due to the Moon receiving more or less illumination (from our perspective). A full cycle of these phases is known as a Lunar Cycle, which comes down to the Moon’s orbit around the Earth, and our mutual orbit around the Sun. When the Sun, the Moon and Earth are perfectly lined up, the angle between the Sun and the Moon is 0-degrees.

At this point, the side of the Moon facing the Sun is fully illuminated, and the side facing the Earth is enshrouded in darkness. We call this a New Moon. After this, the phase of the Moon changes, because the angle between the Moon and the Sun is increasing from our perspective. A week after a New Moon, and the Moon and Sun are separated by 90-degrees, which effects what we will see.

And then, when the Moon and Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth, they’re at 180-degrees – which corresponds to a Full Moon. The period in which a Moon will go from a New Moon to a Full Moon and back again is also known as “Lunar Month”. One of these lasts 28 days, and encompasses what are known as “waxing” and “waning” Moons. During the former period, the Moon brightens and its angle relative to the Sun and Earth increases.

When the Moon is in between the Earth and the Sun, the side of the Moon facing away from the Earth is fully illuminated, and the side we can see is shrouded in darkness. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the angle between the Moon and the Sun increases. At this point, the angle between the Moon and Sun is 0 degrees, which gradually increases over the next two weeks. This is what astronomers call a waxing moon.

After the first week, the angle between the Moon and the Sun is 90-degrees and continues to increase to 180-degrees, when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth. When the Moon starts to decrease its angle again, going from 180-degrees back down to 0-degrees, astronomers say that it’s a waning moon. In other words, when the Moon is waning, it will have less and less illumination every night until it’s a New Moon.

When the Moon is no longer full, but it hasn’t reached a quarter moon – i.e. when it’s half illuminated from our perspective – we say that it’s a Waning Gibbous Moon. This is the exact reverse of a Waxing Gibbous Moon, when the Moon is increasing in brightness from a New Moon to a Full Moon.

This is followed by a Third Quarter (or last quarter) Moon. During this period, 50% of the Moon’s disc will be illuminated (left side in the northern hemisphere, and the right in the southern), which is the opposite of how it would appear during a First Quarter. These phases are often referred to as a “Half Moon”, since half the disc is illuminated at the time.

Finally, a Waning Crescent is when the Moon appears as a sliver in the night sky, where between 49–1% of one side is illuminated after a Full Moon (again, left in the northern hemisphere, right in the southern). This is the opposite of a Waxing Crescent, when 1-49% of the other wide is illuminated before it reaches a Full Moon.

Future of the Moon’s Orbit:

Currently, the Moon’s is slowly drifting away from the Earth, at a rate of about 1 to 2 cm per year. This is directly related to the fact that here on Earth, the day’s are getting longer – by a rate of 1/500th of a second every century. In fact, astronomers have estimated that roughly 620 million years ago, a day was only 21 hours long, and the Moon was between 6,200 – 12,400 km closer.

Now, the days are 24 hours long and getting longer, and the Moon is already at a average distance of 384,400 km. Eventually, the Earth and the Moon will be tidally locked to each other, so the same side of the Earth will always face the Moon, just like the same side of the Moon always presents the same face to the Earth. But this won’t happen for billions of years from now.

For as long as human beings have been staring up at the night sky, the Moon has been a part of our world. And over the course of the roughly 4.5 billion years that it has been our only natural satellite, the relationship between it and our planet has changed. As time goes on, it will continue to change; but to us, it will still be the Moon.

We’ve written many articles about the Moon for Universe Today. Here’s Interesting Facts About the Moon, What is a Moon?, Is the Moon a Planet?, What is the Diameter of the Moon?, What is the Distance to the Moon?, and Does the Moon Orbit the Sun?.

If you’d like more info on the Moon, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Moon, and here’s a link to NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science page.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Moon. Listen here, Episode 113: The Moon, Part 1.

Sources:

 

What is a Waxing Moon?

As you’ve probably noticed, the Moon looks different from one evening to the next. Sometimes we see a New Moon, when the Moon is enshrouded in shadow. At other times, we see a Full Moon, when the entire face of the Moon is illuminated. And of course, there are the many phases in between, where portions of the Moon are illuminated.

This is what is called a Lunar Cycle, a 29 ½-day period (aka. lunar month) where the Moon becomes brighter and dimmer, depending on its orientation with the Earth and the Sun. During the first half of a lunar month, when the amount of illumination on the Moon is increasing, astronomers call this a “waxing moon”.

Lunar Cycle:

To understand the Lunar Cycle, we first must consider the Moon’s orbit in relation to Earth. Basically, the Moon orbits Earth, and Earth orbits the Sun, which means the Moon is always half illuminated by the latter. But from our perspective here on Earth, which part of the Moon is illuminated – and how much – changes over time.

When the Sun, the Moon and Earth are perfectly lined up, the angle between the Sun and the Moon is 0-degrees. At this point, the side of the Moon facing the Sun is fully illuminated, and the side facing the Earth is enshrouded in darkness. We call this a New Moon.

After this, the phase of the Moon changes, because the angle between the Moon and the Sun is increasing from our perspective. A week after a New Moon, and the Moon and Sun are separated by 90-degrees, which effects what we will see. And then, when the Moon and Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth, they’re at 180-degrees – which corresponds to a Full Moon.

Waxing vs. Waning:

The period in which a Moon will go from a New Moon to a Full Moon and back again is known as “Lunar Month”. One of these lasts 28 days, and encompasses what are known as “waxing” and “waning” Moons. During the former period, the Moon brightens and its angle relative to the Sun and Earth increases.

A waxing gibbous Moon from October 12th, headed towards Full this weekend. Image credit and copyright: John Brimacombe.
A waxing gibbous Moon from October 12th, headed towards Full this weekend. Image credit and copyright: John Brimacombe.

When the Moon is in between the Earth and the Sun, the side of the Moon facing away from the Earth is fully illuminated, and the side we can see is shrouded in darkness. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the angle between the Moon and the Sun increases. At this point, the angle between the Moon and Sun is 0 degrees, which gradually increases over the next two weeks. This is what astronomers call a waxing moon.

After the first week, the angle between the Moon and the Sun is 90-degrees and continues to increase to 180-degrees, when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth. When the Moon starts to decrease its angle again, going from 180-degrees back down to 0-degrees, astronomers say that it’s a waning moon. In other words, when the Moon is waning, it will have less and less illumination every night until it’s a New Moon.

Waxing Phases:

The period when the Moon is waxing occurs between a New Moon and a Full Moon, which is characterized by many changes in appearance. The first is known as a Waxing crescent, where 1-49% of the Moon is illuminated. Which side appears illuminated will depend on the observer’s location. For those living in the northern hemisphere, the right side will appear illuminated; whereas for those in the southern hemisphere, the reverse is the case.

Next up is the First Quarter, where 50% of the Moon’s face is illuminated – again, the right side for those in the northern hemisphere and the left for those in the south. This is followed by a Waxing Gibbous Moon, where 51 – 99% of the Moon’s surface is illuminated – right side in the northern hemisphere, left side in the southern. The waxing phase concludes with a Full Moon.

We have written many articles about the Moon here at Universe Today. Here’s What are the Phases of the Moon?, What is a Waning Moon?, What is a Hunter’s Moon?, A Red Moon – Not a Sign of the Apocalypse!, How Did the Moon Form? and What is the Distance to the Moon?

NASA has a cool list of all the Moon phases over the course of 6000 years. And here’s a calculator that shows the current phase of the Moon.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Sources:

What is a Waning Moon?

Human beings have been observing the Moon for as long as they have walked the Earth. Throughout recorded and pre-recorded history, they have paid close attention to its phases and accorded them particular significance. This has played a major role in shaping the mythological and astrological traditions of every known culture.

With the birth of astronomy as a scientific discipline, how the Moon appears in the night sky (and sometimes during the day) has also gone long way towards helping us to understand how our Solar System works. It all comes down to the Lunar Cycle, the two key parts of this cycle involve the “waxing and waning” of the Moon. But what exactly does this mean?-day

Lunar Cycle:

First, we need to consider the orbital parameters of the Earth’s only satellite. For starters, since the Moon orbits Earth, and Earth orbits the Sun, the Moon is always half illuminated by the latter. But from our perspective here on Earth, which part of the Moon is illuminated – and the amount to which it is illuminated – changes over time.

When the Sun, the Moon and Earth are perfectly lined up, the angle between the Sun and the Moon is 0-degrees. At this point, the side of the Moon facing the Sun is fully illuminated, and the side facing the Earth is enshrouded in darkness. We call this a New Moon.

After this, the phase of the Moon changes, because the angle between the Moon and the Sun is increasing from our perspective. A week after a New Moon, and the Moon and Sun are separated by 90-degrees, which effects what we will see. And then, when the Moon and Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth, they’re at 180-degrees – which corresponds to a Full Moon.

Waxing vs. Waning:

The period in which a Moon will go from a New Moon to a Full Moon and back again is known as “Lunar Month”. One of these lasts 28 days, and encompasses what are known as “waxing” and “waning” Moons. During the former period, the Moon brightens and its angle relative to the Sun and Earth increases.

Synthetic view of the waxing Moon as viewed from Earth on 2013-10-15 17:00:00 UTC [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
Synthetic view of the waxing Moon as viewed from Earth on 2013-10-15 17:00:00 UTC. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
When the Moon starts to decrease its angle again, going from 180-degrees back down to 0-degrees, astronomers say that it’s a waning moon. In other words, when the Moon is waning, it will have less and less illumination every night until it’s a New Moon.

Waning Phases:

When the Moon is no longer full, but it hasn’t reached a quarter moon – i.e. when it’s half illuminated from our perspective – we say that it’s a Waning Gibbous Moon. This is the exact reverse of a Waxing Gibbous Moon, when the Moon is increasing in brightness from a New Moon to a Full Moon.

This is followed by a Third Quarter (or last quarter) Moon. During this period, 50% of the Moon’s disc will be illuminated (left side in the northern hemisphere, and the right in the southern), which is the opposite of how it would appear during a First Quarter. These phases are often referred to as a “Half Moon”, since half the disc is illuminated at the time.

The moon in its waning gibbous phase on Sept. 12, 2014. Photo taken with a Canon 700D attached to a Maksutov 127mm telescope. Credit: Sarah&Simon Fisher
The moon in its waning gibbous phase on Sept. 12, 2014. Photo taken with a Canon 700D attached to a Maksutov 127mm telescope. Credit: Sarah&Simon Fisher

Finally, a Waning Crescent is when the Moon appears as a sliver in the night sky, where between 49–1% of one side is illuminated after a Full Moon (again, left in the northern hemisphere, right in the southern). This is the opposite of a Waxing Crescent, when 1-49% of the other wide is illuminated before it reaches a Full Moon.

Even today, thousands of years later, human beings still look up at the Moon and are inspired by what they see. Not only have we explored Earth’s only satellite with robotic missions, but even crewed missions have been there and taken samples directly from the surface. And yet, it still possesses enough mystery to keep us inspired and guessing.

We have written many interesting articles about the Moon here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Moon’s Real Name?, Does the Moon Have Different Names?, What are the Phases of the Moon?, Is the Moon a Planet?, What is the Distance to the Moon?, and Who Were the First Men on the Moon?

Want to know when the next waning gibbous moon is going to happen? NASA has a list of moon phases for a period of 6000 years.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Sources: