A lunar phase or phase of the moon is the appearance of the illuminated (lighted) portion of the Moon as seen by an observer, usually on Earth. The lunar phases change cyclically as the Moon orbits the Earth, according to the changing relative positions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun. One half of the lunar surface is always illuminated by the Sun (except during lunar eclipses), and hence is bright, but the portion of the illuminated hemisphere that is visible to an observer can vary from 100% (full moon) to 0% (new moon). The boundary between the illuminated and unilluminated hemispheres is called the terminator.
Lunar phases are the result of looking at the illuminated half of the Moon from different viewing geometries; they are not caused by the shadow of the Earth or umbra falling on the Moon's surface (this occurs only during a lunar eclipse).
The Moon exhibits different phases as the relative position of the Sun, Earth and Moon changes, appearing as a full moon when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth and as a new moon (dark moon) when they are on the same side. The phases of full moon and new moon are examples of syzygies, which occur when the Earth, Moon, and Sun lie (approximately) in a straight line. The time between two full moons (a Lunar month) is about 29.53 days (29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes) on average (hence, the concept of the timeframe of an approximated month was derived). This synodic month is longer than the time it takes the Moon to make one orbit around the Earth with respect to the fixed stars (the sidereal month), which is about 27.32 days. This difference is caused by the fact that the Earth-Moon system is orbiting around the Sun at the same time the Moon is orbiting around the Earth.
The actual time between two syzygies or two phases is quite variable because the orbit of the Moon is elliptic and subject to various periodic perturbations, which change the velocity of the Moon. When the moon is closer to the earth, it moves faster; when it is farther, it moves slower. The orbit of the Earth around the Sun is also elliptic, so the speed of the Earth also varies, which also affects the phases of the Moon.
It might be expected that once every month when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun during a new moon, its shadow would fall on Earth causing a solar eclipse. Likewise, during every full moon one might expect the Earth's shadow to fall on the Moon, causing a lunar eclipse. Solar and lunar eclipses are not observed every month because the plane of the Moon's orbit around the Earth is tilted by about five degrees with respect to the plane of Earth's orbit around the Sun (the plane of the ecliptic). Thus, when new and full moons occur, the Moon usually lies to the north or south of a direct line through the Earth and Sun. Although an eclipse can only occur when the Moon is either new or full, it must also be positioned very near the intersection of Earth's orbit plane about the Sun and the Moon's orbit plane about the Earth (that is, at one of its nodes). This happens about twice per year, and so there are between four and seven eclipses in a calendar year. Most of these are quite insignificant; major eclipses of the Moon or Sun are rare.
|Phase||Northern Hemisphere||Southern Hemisphere||Visibility||Standard time of culmination (mid-phase)|
|New moon||Not visible, traditionally Moon's first visible crescent||after sunset||12 pm|
|Waxing crescent moon||Right 1–49% visible||Left 1–49% visible||afternoon and post-dusk||3 pm|
|First quarter moon||Right 50% visible||Left 50% visible||afternoon and early night||6 pm|
|Waxing gibbous moon||Right 51–99% visible||Left 51–99% visible||late afternoon and most of night||9 pm|
|Full moon||Fully visible||Fully visible||sunset to sunrise (all night)||12 am|
|Waning gibbous moon||Left 51–99% visible||Right 51–99% visible||most of night and early morning||3 am|
|Last quarter moon||Left 50% visible||Right 50% visible||late night and morning||6 am|
|Waning crescent moon||Left 1–49% visible||Right 1–49% visible||pre-dawn and morning||9 am|
|Dark moon||Not visible, traditionally Moon's last visible crescent||before sunrise||12 pm|
When the Sun and Moon are aligned on the same side of the Earth the Moon is "new", and the side of the Moon visible from Earth is not illuminated by the Sun. As the Moon waxes (the amount of illuminated surface as seen from Earth is increasing), the lunar phases progress from new moon, crescent moon, first-quarter moon, gibbous moon and full moon phases, before returning through the gibbous moon, third-quarter (or last quarter) moon, crescent moon and new moon phases. The terms old moon and new moon are interchangeable, although new moon is more common. Half moon is often used to mean the first- and third-quarter moons, while the term 'quarter' refers to the extent of the moon's cycle around the Earth, not its shape.
When a sphere is illuminated on one hemisphere and viewed from a different angle, the portion of the illuminated area that is visible will have a two-dimensional shape defined by the intersection of an ellipse and circle (where the major axis of the ellipse coincides with a diameter of the circle). If the half-ellipse is convex with respect to the half-circle, then the shape will be gibbous (bulging outwards), whereas if the half-ellipse is concave with respect to the half-circle, then the shape will be a crescent. When a crescent Moon occurs, the phenomenon of Earthshine may be apparent, where the night side of the Moon faintly reflects light from the Earth.
In the northern hemisphere, if the left side of the Moon is dark then the light part is growing, and the Moon is referred to as waxing (moving towards a full moon). If the right side of the Moon is dark then the light part is shrinking, and the Moon is referred to as waning (moving towards a new moon). Assuming that the viewer is in the northern hemisphere, the right portion of the Moon is the part that is always growing (i.e., if the right side is dark, the Moon is growing darker; if the right side is lit, the Moon is growing lighter). In the southern hemisphere the Moon is observed upside down (compared with viewing from the northern hemisphere), and the opposite sides appear to grow (wax) and shrink (wane).