How many phases of the moon are there?

How many phases of the moon are there?  The answer may surprise you. 

Before we go any further, let’s make sure we understand some key concepts regarding the moon.  

Phases of the Moon Vs. Lunar Cycle

The Phases of the Moon are the different amounts of reflected sunlight you see from your position on Earth, while the moon is in orbit around earth. Not only is the appearance of the moon (it’s phase) different every night, but so is its location in the sky. 

The Lunar Cycle is the fact that the Phases of the Moon repeat. Many people use these two terms interchangeable, and that’s *not quite* right. 

Think about the “other cycles” you may have studied like the water cycle, the life cycle, etc. They repeat over and over as does the Lunar Cycle. The phases are the changing states, the individual pieces that make up the cycle. The water cycle has precipitation, evaporation and condensation to name a few of its “phases” as a way of comparison. 

So the key words to differentiate between are PHASE vs CYCLE because anything to do with the Moon can be referred to as Lunar. A Lunar Phase is a Moon Phase for example. 

Important Moon Facts

Some other things we should understand about the moon before diving deep into what causes the lunar phases are: 

  • The moon does not make its own light, it only reflects it
  • The section of the moon that we see the light reflecting from determines the lunar (moon) phase
  • The same side of the moon always faces the Earth. This is because the Moon is tidally locked (more details later in this post)
  • The phases of the moon repeat roughly every 28 days 

So, What ARE the Phases of the Moon?

This Diagram shows that the Phases are caused by a combination of the moon's orbit around Earth as well ad Earth's orbit around the Sun.
This Diagram shows that the Phases are caused by a combination of the moon’s orbit around Earth as well ad Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

There are *officially* 8 main phases of the moon. New Moon, Waxing Crescent, First Quarter Moon, Waxing Gibbous Moon, Full Moon, Waning Gibbous Moon, Last (or Third) Quarter Moon, and the Waning Crescent Moon. Every night the part of the moon that is reflecting light is changing ever so slightly, so I like to think of it as 29.5 phases of the moon.

Keep a Moon Journal

The best way to experience the Phases of the Moon for yourself is to keep a moon journal. I recommend beginning on the 1st of the month (any month) and documenting the moon as you see it in the sky. The phase the moon *happens* to be on the 1st of the month does not matter, because by the end of the month, you will have seen and recorded all the phases, including the 8 major phases typically listed as THE phases of the moon.

To help with this project, Homeschool Holiday offers a FREE Moon Journal worksheet in our FREEBIE Section of the Homeschool Holiday Store.

cover images for the phases of the moon tracking journal. Shows the calendar worksheet that contains moon images on each space for recording what the phases of the moon look like each night. There is also a clip art boy looking through a telescope,
Download the Moon Journal in the Homeschool Holiday Store.

What Causes the Phases of the Moon?

Let’s begin by exploring how the Earth and moon move together in space. The moon orbits around Earth in 29.5 days or roughly one month. That’s why you could argue there are 29.5 phases of the moon.

Compare that to how the Earth orbits around the Sun in a year (365 days).  As humans we like order. The time it takes for the moon to orbit around the Earth is where we get the length of our months. Originally the month was the interval between one new moon and the next. This is where we get what we label the 8 phases of the moon. 

The cause of the phases is simply HOW the moon is moving around the Earth as well as how the Earth is moving around the sun and the light we can see reflected back at us based on our position.

What is Tidal Locking? 

Tidal locking, simply put, The Earth and the moon exerting force on one another. It’s because the gravity on the Moon and the Gravity on Earth are interacting with one another. (Tidal locking can occur between any two gravitational forces really.) Tidal locking causes us to see the SAME side of the moon – Always.

The moon orbits on its axis once in exactly the same time as it takes to orbit around Earth. This synchronous rotation happens because both the moon and the Earth exert force on each other. This force causes the bodies to stretch and distort. In the case of Earth and the moon, this stretching causes our tides! 

Earth’s oceans, other bodies of water, and to a much lesser extent the land respond to the moon by bulging and dipping as the moon revolves around Earth. The sun also plays a role in the formation of tides, but a much smaller one. Even though the Sun is much, much larger than the moon, it’s force of Gravity is much much further away! 

The gravity on Earth holds our water ON earth, but when the pull of the moon’s force also impacts the water, causing it to bulge. We call this bulge high tide.  The side of the Earth facing the moon is experiencing what is called the  high high tide. The high tide caused by the bulge on the opposite side of Earth is called the low high tide. This bulge is caused by the Earth spinning, and in essence the moon is pulling the EARTH toward it, not the water. 

These two high tides pull water away from the rest of the oceans, giving us  two low tides between the high tides.

What is there to Celebrate?

One Giant Leap Day

At Homeschool Holiday, we don’t NEED a reason to study, but it’s so nice when our lessons align with fun Holidays. If you want to study the Moon, why not begin your study on July 20th.

July 20th is celebrated as “One Giant Leap Day” in honor of when in 1969, Apollo 11 Astronauts landed on the moon. At 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Neil Armstrong is ready to step onto the moon. His will be the first human foot to step onto another world. As more than half a billion people watch on television, he climbs down a ladder, steps onto the moon and says: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Listen to Neil Armstrong’s statement

Mooncake day or the Mid-Autumn Festival

 The Mooncake Festival is a traditional festival celebrated by many East and Southeast Asian people. It has a history dating back over 3,000 years and is almost as important as Chinese New Year. The festival honors the time in history when Chinese Emperors worshiped the moon for bountiful harvests.

The Festival is held when the Chinese feel the moon is it’s BRIGHTEST and fullest size. When using the Gregorian calendar it falls somewhere in September or October each year. Using the traditional Chinese calendar (an agricultural calendar that keeps track of days and years based on astronomy) the festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month with a full moon.

Ideas for Celebrating

There really is a lot that goes into the Phases of the Moon and learning about them is a lot of FUN! Homeschool Holiday has assembled a set of resources that help you feel like an moon expert! In fact, there’s a complete instructional video so all the teaching is done for you.

  • Make your mark – trace your footprint onto black construction paper with a white crayon or colored pencil. Write a sentence that YOU would say if you were the first to land on the Moon.
  • Read some books about Neil Armstrong, Astronauts and other Space related topics.
  • Make replica lanterns and decorate with them for the Moon Festival. Lanterns of various sizes and shapes are displayed as a way to light the path to good fortune!
  • Find a recipe for mooncakes, the traditional pastry eaten during the festival. Perhaps there is a specialty bakery in your area as well that makes them.
  • Go deeper with the Homeschool Holiday Phases of the Moon Worksheets
cover images for phases of teh moon product. Shows sample worksheet for learners to take notes as well as a cut and paste worksheet. There is a large moon in the background with an astronaut clip art image to the right.
Visit the Homeschool Holiday Store to purchase this resource so YOU can celebrate One Giant Leap!

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