We all see the same moon phase, more or less, on the same day. Yet many people report perplexities related to the moon’s phase. Rowena in Australia wrote, for example:
I was mainly wondering about the locations of the seas and craters appearing differently. For example, when I take a photo of the moon, the Sea of Serenity appears in one place, but from other countries it seems to be located somewhere else.
Stumped down under,
So … here’s a big part of the answer. The Northern and Southern Hemispheres see the moon oriented differently with respect to the horizon. The change in orientation leads to differences that can be hard to comprehend! For one thing, observers in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres see the moon apparently upside-down with respect to each other. You can see that if you scrutinize the moon’s features in the images below. Notice that – for example – from the Northern Hemisphere, a waxing moon (from new moon to full moon) increases its phase from right to left.
From the Southern Hemisphere, meanwhile, a waxing moon (from new moon to full moon) increases its phase from left to right. Why so different? Think of the moon’s path across your sky. Just picture yourself standing there, looking at it. From the Northern Hemisphere, we look generally southward to see the moon (or sun) crossing our sky. From the Southern Hemisphere, people look generally northward to see the moon (or sun) crossing the sky. Can you see why that shift in your orientation on the globe would cause you to see the moon differently?
But there are other differences. Look back at Bridget Borchert’s image at the top of this post. No matter where you are on Earth, the moon itself shifts its orientation with respect to your horizon as it moves across your sky. I hope the photo at top – showing the moon’s changing face throughout a single evening – is self-explanatory. If you do have questions, though, please ask them in the comments below, and I’ll try to answer, if I can.
Just remember, your time zone also makes a small difference in how you view the moon’s phase. That’s because – as Earth turns under the sky, and the moon rises for successive time zones – the moon is continually waxing or waning.
A final thought. What we on Earth call moon phases are really about sunrise and sunset on the moon. Astronomers call the line between light and dark on the moon the terminator line. That’s the line of sunrise or sunset on the moon, and it shifts, just as the line of sunrise and sunset on Earth is constantly shifting. Earth spins relatively fast, approximately once every 24 hours. The moon spins on its axis only once each earthly month, and its line of sunrise/set moves slowly. It’s wonderful fun to beg or borrow a telescope for a night when the moon is up … and watch for yourself over several hours as the shadows slowly shift on the moon, as the lunar sunrise or sunset slowly creeps across the moon’s face. A great way to clear the mind!
Bottom line: The whole Earth sees the same moon phase on the same day, but the Northern and Southern Hemispheres see the moon oriented differently with respect to the horizon. The moon itself shifts its orientation with respect to your horizon as it moves across your sky. Finally, your time zone makes a small difference in how you view the moon’s phase.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.