Understanding The Phases Of The Moon

Here’s a “crash course” on understanding the lunar cycle.

The Moon and its activity are very popular topics at the Farmers’ Almanac. Things get really exciting around here especially when we have a full Moon. But we know it can be a little confusing for many people with regard to what is actually going on with that giant cantaloupe in the sky.  Here’s a crash course on understanding the lunar cycle.

Understanding the Lunar Cycle

First, the Moon is on a 30-day cycle when it makes its orbit around the Earth. Actually, the entire trip takes 29.53 days, to be exact, and is measured from one “New Moon” to the next.

The Phases of the Moon

Note: the Moon’s orbit around the Sun is not a perfect circle, as depicted here, but rather, an oval shape.

Here, we’ll break down each of the 8 phases of the Moon as it revolves around the Earth. Refer to the corresponding numbered phases in the diagram above in this article to follow along.

  1. New Moon. When we are in the “New” Moon phase, the Moon is not visible from our perspective because it is positioned between the Sun and Earth. The portion of the Moon that is actually getting sunlight is the back side of the Moon, the half that we cannot see. It’s called the New Moon because it’s the beginning of the lunar cycle. Push the “reset button” and let the 30-day orbit begin!
  2. Waxing Crescent – After the New Moon, the Moon continues its journey around the Earth, becoming visible as it moves on its path toward becoming a Full Moon. The sunlit portion is increasing. A crescent Moon is easy to identify as it looks like a sliver in the sky.  Waxing = growing in illumination.
  3. First Quarter Moon. This one confuses a lot of people. In this case, the term is used because the Moon is in the first quarter of the 30-day cycle, but it appears half full. The First Quarter and Last Quarter Moons (both called “half moons”) happen when the Moon is at a 90 degree angle with respect to the Earth and Sun. So we are seeing exactly the half of the moon that gets hit by the Sun’s light.
  4. Waxing Gibbous Still growing as we head toward full. More than half of the Moon is illuminated by the Sun.  Gibbous = more than half. Waxing = growing in illumination.
  5. Full Moon. The full Moon comes about 15 days (14.8 to be exact) after the New Moon, the mid-point of the cycle (half of 30 = 15). The Moon is now in alignment with the Earth and Sun again, just as in the New Moon phase, but this time, the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth, so the entire portion of the Moon that is lit by the Sun is facing us.  After this phase, which lasts only an instant, visibility starts decreasing.
  6. Waning Gibbous – Waning = decreasing in illumination as we head toward the darkness of the next New Moon. Gibbous = more than half.
  7. Last Quarter Moon (sometimes called the Third Quarter Moon). This is when the Moon completes the third quadrant of its phase cycle, about 22.1 days after the New Moon phase. And, as in #3, it looks like a half Moon to us again, except this time, it’s heading toward the New Moon phase (disappearing) instead of growing toward the full Moon phase.
  8. Waning Crescent – The Moon is a little sliver of a crescent, just as in #2, but the illuminated part is decreasing. Waning = decreasing in illumination. Now, the illuminated crescent is facing the opposite direction as when it was a waxing crescent (see #2).  

Two terms to memorize:

Waxing = Growing in illumination

Waning = Shrinking in illumination

How Can You Tell if The Moon Is Waxing Or Waning?

If you look in the sky and see a crescent or gibbous Moon, here’s how to tell if it is in the waxing or waning phase by the direction it’s curving.

So there you have it. We’re happy to answer any questions to help you understand this fascinating and complex changes in Earth’s satellite. Just leave them in the comments below.

Check out our Moon Phases Chart so you can see each phase, day by day, for the entire month!

Want to see the whole process in animation using real images of the Moon? Watch this amazing video courtesy of NASA:

This article was published by the staff at Farmers' Almanac. Do you have a question or an idea for an article? Contact us!

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Becca Biderman

From what I have just read a new moon is seen every 30 day and the space between the new moons is 28 days? Meaning the new moon is both and ending And a beginning. Thanks for your reply

Ron

Very interesting piece on the moon. Now I’m a Moon maniac.

chit

I am trying to understand what “lunar day” it is. If new moon Central time was March 2 @ 11:35 AM, then it would be the first lunar day until March 3 at moonrise, correct?

Then March 3rd, all day/night would be the 2nd lunar day from moonrise March 3 until moonrise on March 4? I am looking at two calendars online that state the lunar day and one of them is wrong. 🙂 thank you for any help.

Cynthia Burnett

When is the best time to prune?waning gibbious or waning crescent?

Susan Johnson

How does the moon phase make deer react

Barbara Howard

When planting by the moon phases, when is the best time in July to plant peas and beans.

Cindy Cageao

Could someone knowledgeable about timing planting with moon phases give me a quick synopsis? Planting seeds versus plants during waxing and waning of the moon is new to me. But it does make sense. I just can’t remember which gets planted when. Thank you!

Rob Roberts

Search Results
Featured snippet from the web
In a waxing moon, when light increases towards a full moon, sap flow is drawn up. This is the most suitable time for sowing and transplanting flowering annuals, biennials, grains and melons. … With an waning moon, when the light is decreasing as the moon changes from a full to a new moon, the sap flow is drawn down.Dec 15, 201

Doris keyes

Very interesting, thank you

Susan Higgins

Glad you enjoyed the article, Doris!

Darrick

The Moon phases will help you to understand your Mood
Two weeks of increased (waxing)⬆️energy building to the Full Moon Two weeks declining (wanning)⬇️ energy back to the New Moon

⬆️⬆️⬆️ ⬇️⬇️⬇️

Lilith

How long after the full moon does it begin wanning,, is it a day or 2,, I want to marry on a full moon it says it b full at 12am yet ceremony will b at 5 pm n I prefer not to marry on a wanning moon

BOI

what about the yellow moon?

BOI

why is this sooo hard like… its so hard to under stand the movement

BOI

umm… ok

Reinaldo Perez

According to your diagrams of the moon phases and the earth and suns positions, how do you explain a full moon during the day?

Reinaldo Perez

Susan Higgins

Hi Reinaldo, When the Moon is full, and at its brightest, it sits directly opposite the Sun in the sky, which means it is below the horizon while the Sun is up. The New Moon rises during the day, but sits too close to the Sun to be seen. It sets at night, which is why the night sky is dark during the New Moon. It’s only as the Moon gets close to its quarter phases that the conditions are ideal for it to be seen during the day. That is, it is bright enough, far enough away from the Sun to be seen, and rises or sets during daylight hours. When all of these conditions come together, and when the sky is clear enough, the Moon becomes visible during the daytime.

Braden Mende

How can a full moon be possible at #5 if the earth is blocking the sunlight from the moon?

Susan Higgins

Hi Braden Mende – The diagram isn’t completely accurate because the moon doesn’t orbit the Earth in a true circle. It’s more oval in shape. So there aren’t perfect line ups to block the Sun’s rays. The Earth only blocks the Moon receiving sunlight when there is a total eclipse — a straight lineup of Moon, Earth and Sun. Otherwise, it’s not completely lined up and the Moon is receiving light from the Sun. Take a look at a further explanation here: Lunar Eclipse and Solar Eclipse – Dates for 2020

vincint

i really like it..i learn something about it.

Reenee Mahabir

This si a good article. thank you for explaining. My astrologer did not even explain it.

Sandra Ray

My husband and I had a farm 38 years. He always farmed by the Almanac. I do my flowering by the Almanac.Thank you. I had a beauty shop and cut hair by the Almanac. Love it.

E. Machado

As a backyard gardener, I am learning gardening by the moon phases (I am noticing it makes a difference in plant health and yield). Thank you Farmers Almanac!

Patricia Cole

OK, now I know this but not have memorised it, what do I do with this into? How is it helpful to me?

Susan Higgins

Patricia Cole, it’s only useful for memorization if this is a topic that interests you.

Susan Higgins

Thank you, Janet Davis!

janet davis

I live in an area where surface light is a bare minimum. There are no street lights, either. I enjoy the moon phases immensely and have learned a lot from the Farmers Almanac.

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