All The Types of Moon Phases and Moon Cycles

Learn About All the Types of Moon Phases and Moon Cycles

This guide simplifies the basic science and mythology behind all the types of moon phases and moon cycles.

Our modern culture largely ignores our closest celestial partner.  But we cannot deny this lunar satellite’s impact on our planet.  Its gravitational pull affects the tides of the oceans and even lakes to a smaller extent.  Plus, it provides indirect light at night and several methods for measuring time.

“The moon, by her comparative proximity, and the constantly varying appearances produced by her several phases, has always occupied a considerable share of the attention of the inhabitants of the earth.” — Jules Verne

The different kinds of moon phases and cycles have had a profound effect on life and culture.

Simplifying Moon Cycles and Phases

The most obvious question is, what causes these different phases or cycles?  A phase is the day-to-day change, and the moon cycle is one complete rotation of the satellite.  See, that was easy.

We can see our lunar partner because it reflects sunlight.  Sometimes we only see a partial reflection because the Earth gets in the way.  Our lunar partner, the Sun and the Earth, are in an intricate cosmic dance that gives us the changing phases of our lunar satellite.

There are 13 complete cycles of the moon each year.  Learning all the types of moon phases will help you keep track of them.  These cycles are equivalent to a month of lunar time, but how you measure them will give you slightly different days in each cycle.

“We are full of rhythms . . . our pulse, our gestures, our digestive tracts, the lunar and seasonal cycles.” — Yehudi Menuhin

Many ancient civilizations used the moon to create a 13-month annual calendar instead of the stars or zodiac signs.

Measuring All the Types of Moon Phases

There are several ways to measure the different phases of our lunar partner.  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

The Draconic, or nodical, is the time it takes for the moon to pass through the same node, or intersection of its orbit with the ecliptic, which is the arc of path of the Sun.  It takes 18.6 years for the plane of the Moon’s orbit processes over a full circle, so the nodes move backwards over the ecliptic with the same period.

Tropical = 27.321582252 days

The Tropical method measures the moon procession in the sky in respect to the Vernal Equinox.  It takes the Moon less time to return to an ecliptic longitude of zero than to the same point amidst the fixed stars, so it takes slightly less than 28 days.

Sidereal = 27.321661554 day

A Sidereal month is measured by counting the days from a  fixed reference.  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.

Many ancient cultures of the middle east, India, and china used the Sidereal method, fixing their lunar satellite with specific stars or constellations.  This way, they knew they had completed of the moon cycles, and this would take between 27 and 28 days to complete.  Still, a written calendar has the advantage of working regardless of the weather.

Anomalistic = 27.554549886 days

Most satellites have an orbit that is an ellipse and not a perfect circle, it’s the same for our lunar partner.  And the orientation (as well as the shape) of this orbit are not fixed.  Some cultures discovered the farthest points of this precession would take about nine years.  It moves ahead on this route with each cycle. This longer period is called the anomalistic month.

Synodic = 29.530588861 days

The phases of the moon depend on its relation to the Sun.  Since the Earth orbits the Sun, the moon takes extra time to catch up when completing a Sidereal month, this longer period is called the synodic month.

Bottom line on the Phases of the Moon

Since the moon is continually changing, if you want to get down to it, there are 28 different types of moon phases.  The problem is, 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.  It’s the main reason for creating a lunar calendar.

The bottom line here is that there are roughly 28 days in one of the moon cycles.   To keep track of the cycle, you need to decide on which of phases you want to use to begin counting.  The easier it is to see, the better.  Keeping a running tally helps as well, since cloud cover could obscure your ability to each phase.  It’s one reason ancient cultures mapped out the entire year.  Once you can establish the starting point of the cycle, then it doesn’t matter if you can’t see it.

Of all the types of moon phases, the full moon and the new moon are the most straightforward points to recognize.  You see it as a round orb in the sky when it is complete.  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 and 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 described 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.  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 Kinds 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 full.

Next, count 14 days from the full moon.  It will take you through 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 lunar progression into four primary cycles (1), each one will have seven days.

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, adding a young phase, about 30 hours after the new moon and a stage called old, which is about 30 hours before the lunar disappears into the new phase.  That gives us ten steps.  Is that too many?

If you want to go crazy, you could divide all the types of moon phases it into 28.  We think that’s a bit too many.  Or an easier ways to count days starting with any of the 10 main phases like the new or full moon.  Easier yet, get a lunar calendar.

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 specific lunar holidays.

“Another hundred years may pass before we understand the true significance of Apollo. Lunar exploration was not the equivalent of an American pyramid, some idle monument to technology, but more of a Rosetta stone, a key to unlocking dreams as yet undreamed.” — Gene Cernan

Learning the different types of moon phases puts us in touch with our ancestors and helps us appreciate the sacrifices of the generations before us.  It teaches us about continuity.   When you gaze up at the lunar satellite, you are seeing the surface that all of your ancestors saw back to the beginning of humankind.

“Time is always fleeting and the lunar phases represent that visually for me. What people take away from that and how they apply it within their own lives, that’s entirely up to them.” —  Jacob Bannon

References

(1)  Lunar Phase: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_phase

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