moon: The Lunar Orbit and Phases

The Lunar Orbit and Phases

As seen from above the earth's north pole, the moon moves in a counterclockwise direction with an average orbital speed of about 0.6 mi/sec (1 km/sec). Because the lunar orbit is elliptical, the distance between the earth and the moon varies periodically as the moon revolves in its orbit. At perigee, when the moon is nearest the earth, the distance is about 227,000 mi (365,000 km); at apogee, when the moon is farthest from the earth, the distance is about 254,000 mi (409,000 km). The average distance is about 240,000 mi (385,000 km), or about 60 times the radius of the earth itself. The plane of the moon's orbit is tilted, or inclined, at an angle of about 5° with respect to the ecliptic. The line dividing the bright and dark portions of the moon is called the terminator.

As the moon orbits the earth, the amount of its illuminated surface that can be seen from the earth changes. When none of the lighted half can be seen, because the moon is between the earth and sun, the moon is said to be new. For a few days before and after a new moon we can see a small part, or crescent, of the lighted half. When the moon has completed half its orbit from new moon to new moon, it is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun and we see the entire lighted half, or the full moon. When the moon has completed either one quarter or three quarters of its orbit from new moon to new moon, half the lighted side, the half-moon, is visible. The half-moon between the new and full moon is the first quarter and that between the full and new moon is the last quarter. Between a full moon and half-moon we see more than half the lighted side, or a gibbous moon. A blue moon is a second full moon in a calendar month; a black moon is a second new moon in a calendar month, or a calendar month with no full moon.

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