Everyone looking up at the moon from any spot on the globe sees the same moon, in more or less the same phase. Moon phase is a whole-Earth phenomenon. So why does a photo of the moon taken from one part of the world look different from one taken in another part of the world, on the same night? And why does the moon seem to look different – even from the same spot – over the course of a single night?
Let’s take the second question first. The moon’s orientation with respect to your horizon shifts throughout the night because we live under a curved dome of sky. The illustration below – by Courtney Seligman – shows the curved line traveled by the stars and the moon, as they traverse Earth’s dome of night (or day). Professor Seligman was also trying to illustrate in this drawing that, although Earth’s rotation under the sky causes the stars and moon to move westward throughout the night, the moon’s motion in orbit is eastward.
So the moon looks different throughout the night, due to the moon’s arcing path across our sky. But what about the moon phases? Are they the same for all of us?
An important point to take into consideration is that those in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres also see the moon oriented differently from one another, 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 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?
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 moon shows one phase to the Earth at the same time, but our different perspectives due to where we are on the globe can make the moon appear differently in our sky.
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.