This guide simplifies the various types of moon phases. It clarifies the basic science and mythology behind our lunar partner’s cycles.
Our modern culture largely ignores our closest celestial partner. But we cannot deny the impact this lunar satellite has on our planet. Its gravitational pull affects the tides of the oceans and even lakes to a smaller extent. It provides indirect light at night and several methods for measuring time.
Simplifying Moon Cycles
The most obvious question is, what causes these different phases or cycles? We can see our lunar partner because it reflects sunlight. Sometimes we only see a partial reflection because the Earth gets in the way. The Sun, Moon, and Earth are in an intricate cosmic dance that gives us the changing phases of our lunar satellite. See, that’s easy.
Our lunar satellite orbits the Earth roughly every twenty-eight days. It depends on how and what you measure. For instance, if you count the cycle on when it returns to the same point in the celestial landscape of stars, they call this a Sidereal Month.
Ancient cultures of the middle east, India, and china used this method. They fixed our lunar satellite with specific stars or constellations. This way, they knew they had completed one entire cycle; this would take between 27 and 28 days to complete.
Many ancient civilizations used the moon to create a 13-month annual calendar instead of using the stars or zodiac signs.
Measuring Different Types of Moon Phases
If you look at the moon’s orbit, you can find several ways to measure our lunar partner’s different phases. Here are the most used methods for a monthly circuit.
These methods for calculating these cycles are not for dummies. It’s easy to get lost in the intricate math, geometry, and astronomy. Here are the primary methods and their results, if you are curious.
- Draconic = 27.212220815 days
- Tropical = 27.321582252 days
- Sidereal = 27.321661554 day
- Anomalistic = 27.554549886 days
- Synodic = 29.530588861 days
The bottom line here is, no matter how you measure them, there are roughly 28 days in the lunar cycle.
Since the moon is continually changing, there are “28 different types of moon phases.” The change from one to the next is hard to see with the naked eye. Ancient cultures measured this precision at the most prominent points. They didn’t have telescopes. So, this restricted what they could see.
The full moon and the new moon are the most straightforward points to recognize. When it is complete, you see it as a round orb in the sky. When the moon is new, it is invisible to the naked eye. We’re not sure why they call it a new moon when you can’t see it at all.
When the full moon gets smaller, this is “waning,” so it takes 14 days for our lunar partner to disappear; they call this point the new moon. Some people consider the full moon part of the “waning cycle.” but some see it as the waxing stage resolution.
Waxing means to increase. There are approximately 14 days in the waxing cycle. When it is partially visible, either waxing or waning, they call this “gibbous,” or less than a full circle.
The adjective gibbous is from the Latin noun gibbous, which means hump or humpbacked. In the 14th Century, the English began using the term to describe something less than a full circle. No one is sure how it got from meaning hump or bulging to “less than half a circle” is a mystery. I guess they just liked the sound of the word.
Okay, so here is something else to consider about waxing and waning. If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, a waxing moon goes from left to right. It is the opposite in the Northern Hemisphere; it increases from right to left. There is no need to worry; there won’t be a test on any of this.
Organizing the Different Types of Moon Phases
We can divide these phases in several ways, starting with the simplest. The first way is to count one complete cycle, count 28 days from the full moon. This method gives you one entire circuit of the moon. The hardest part is determining when it is “completely full.”
Next, count 14 days from the full moon; this will take the two simple divisions: waxing and Waining. Again, waxing means to increase. There are approximately 14 days in the waxing cycle. When it is partially visible, either waxing or waning, they call this “gibbous,” or less than a full circle. The first is the moon getting more prominent, the second it’s getting smaller.
The next grouping divides the precession into four primary cycles (1).
1) Waxing Crescent
2) Waxing Gibbous
3) Waning Gibbous
4) Waning Crescent
The next popular is to divide each cycle by quarters; this gives us eight partitions.
1) Start with the new moon on day 1
2) Waxing crescents from 3 to 5 days into the phase
3) First quarter is seven days into the cycle
4) Waxing gibbous at about ten days
5) Full moon at approximately 14 or 15 days into the cycle
6) Waning gibbous around day 17
7) Last quarter is about day 21
8) Waning crescents from 23 to 25 days into the cycle
We prefer the set that includes two additional vantage points. It adds a “young” phase, which is about 30 hours after the new moon. And it adds a stage called “old,” which is about 30 hours before it disappears. That gives us ten steps. Is that too many?
If you want to go crazy, you could divide it into 28 phases. Or you can start counting days either at the new or full moon.
How Can You Use This Information?
- Use this formation to the most out of stargazing. The best time is close to the new moon.
- Keep track of the 13-month moon calendar.
- Create a ritual to honor your ancestors on a specific moon phase.
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(1) Wikipedia, Lunar Phase, Phases of the moon.
(2) Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia