When the moon is new, it’s most nearly between the Earth and sun for any particular month. There’s a new moon about once a month, because the moon takes about a month to orbit Earth. Most of the time, the new moon passes not in front of the sun, but simply near it in our sky. That’s why, in most months, there’s no solar eclipse.
On the other hand, the moon must be at the new phase in order for a solar eclipse to take place.
The photo of a new moon at the top of this page shows the moon as it passed near the sun on July 8, 2013. There was no eclipse that day; it was an ordinary new moon. New moons typically can’t be seen, or at least they can’t without special equipment and a lot of moon-photography experience. Thierry Legault was able to catch the photo at top – the moon at the instant it was new – because the moon that month passed to one side of the sun, and the faintest of lunar crescents was visible.
Either way – in front of the sun or just near it – on the day of new moon, the moon travels across the sky with the sun during the day, hidden in the sun’s glare.
Some people use the term new moon for a thin crescent moon visible in the west after sunset. You always see these little crescents – which set shortly after the sun – a day or two after each month’s new moon. Astronomers don’t call these little crescent moons new moons, however. In the language of astronomy, this slim crescent is called a young moon.
New moons, and young moons, are fascinating to many. The Farmer’s Almanac, for example, still offers information on gardening by the moon. And many cultures have holidays based on moon phases.
Bottom line: When astronomers say the moon is new, they mean it’s crossing the sky with the sun during the day. New moons generally can’t be seen.
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.