NASA Goddard rocks the Moon

By Phil Plait | March 2, 2012 7:00 am

Wanna know what the Moon will look like at any time this year? And I mean what it really looks like, shadows and all?

Then go to the NASA Goddard Science Visualization Studio, where they have an amazing applet that shows you the Moon’s appearance on an hourly basis for the entire year!

Most times, websites showing you the phase of the Moon do it in big time chunks, like once per day or even per week, or they have a low-res image of the Moon with the dark part blacked out. But this one from NASA lets you enter the date and hour, for very high time resolution photo-realistic pictures.

The images are based on observations by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been taken super-high-res images and altimetry data since it went into orbit our satellite in June 2009. The images show far more than just the lunar phase. For one thing, using the LRO altimeter data, it can calculate the lengths, directions, and positions of all the shadows of mountains, crater rims, and so on, knowing the angle of the Sun over the horizon.

After seeing it, my first thought was, "Someone should string these all together to make a video." I looked down the NASA page, et voila! They had! So I made it into a video on YouTube which I annotated. I also added music by Kevin MacLeod I rather like.

[Make sure to set it to HD for the full effect, which is mesmerizing.]

That weird rocking and tilting motion is real. It’s called libration. The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is elliptical, so sometimes it moves faster in its orbit than other times. However, the Moon’s spin is constant. The geometry of these two things add together, allowing us to sometimes peek a little bit over the eastern and western horizons. Not only that, the Moon’s orbit is tilted a bit with respect to our Equator, so we sometimes get a little peak over the north and south poles too.

I’ll note that these views of the Moon are not designed for people at different latitudes; for example, from Australia the Moon looks upside-down compared to how I’m used to seeing it in Boulder! Instead, these views show the Moon as if you are at the center of the Earth with your head pointed toward the north pole. Still, it’s an amazing thing, and well worth bookmarking. When I need to know what phase the Moon is in — and it happens several times a month for me — this is where I’ll check.

Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio. Music for the video is "Five Armies" by Kevin MacLeod.

MORE ABOUT: libration, Moon, phase

Comments (55)

Links to this Post

  1. NASA Goddard rocks the Moon « | March 2, 2012
  2. The Moon in 2012… hour by hour – La Luna nel 2012, ora dopo ora | DENEB Official © | March 2, 2012
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  1. thetentman

    I think this would be a great screen saver.

  2. Chris

    Now I’ll never have to go outside to look at the moon again.

  3. John Paradox

    Join the Lunar Libration League!!


  4. Frank F.

    Thanks for sharing. The Goddard Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio website is a goldmine of cool animations.

  5. Brian


    Join the League of Lunar Libration instead!!

  6. llewelly

    Instead, these views show the Moon as if you are at the center of the Earth with your head pointed toward the north pole.

    funny, I’d have thought that at the center of the Earth my view would be occluded by a whole lot of iron and nickel …

  7. There’s a great Android app called “Moon Phase Pro” that is essentially the same thing. Granted, not glorious hi-res LRO images but really nice nonetheless. I use it all the time, one of the few apps I’d pay for.

  8. Gary Ansorge

    Oh goody,,,pretty pictures.

    Here’s some more, from Physics World,. Interesting light shows,,,

    Gary 7

  9. Nice. I made a similar video for a talk, but from simulated data. This version is much cooler.

  10. Pete Jackson

    When the Earth is destroyed on Dec 21, will the Moon then just fly off in a straight line? Or will the Moon and Sun and everything else get destroyed too?

  11. Thopter

    So when is someone going to make a video of earth phases as seen by future moon colonists?

  12. shelly
  13. SkyGazer

    That´s really cool! The slight twitch the moon made when I adjusted the time for just one hour for my time zone was totally worth the click!
    And I checked outside and it was correct.
    My rating: *****
    (but really: it is a really really neat app!)

  14. JaberwokWSA

    This video is amazing. It clearly demonstrates the interesting fact of libration, and with it an uncommon fact. You can, in fact, see more than 50% of the moon’s surface. I don’t know the exact number, but I think it is close to 60%. Maybe Phil, you can fill in the correct percentage of the surface we can actually see from Earth.

    Anyway, cool video.

  15. OtherRob

    I think I’d rather join the Lunar Libation League. 😉

  16. I rather thought, though, that the maria were not named or described until the telescopic period (although the general irregularity of the visible face has been known since antiquity).

  17. Larry

    Don’t forget the US Naval Observatory’s ever entertaining 400 year lunar phase machine! Choose the time (to the hour) anytime between 1800 and 2199 in any time zone and see the phase of the moon. Low res but endless fun:

  18. Simon Green

    ‘…from Australia the Moon looks upside-down compared to how I’m used to seeing it in Boulder!’

    I’ve never been able to figure that out. The moon is the moon. It doesn’t turn upside down just because you’re south of the equator. Are you making a subtle joke that we Antipodeans won’t get? 😉

  19. Thopter

    @Simon I guess it’s a matter of which way your head is pointed relative to the moon.

    According to the NASA page linked above:
    “The descriptions of the print resolution stills also assume a northern hemisphere orientation. To adjust for southern hemisphere views, rotate the images 180 degrees, and substitute “north” for “south” in the descriptions.”

  20. Rob

    @ #16

    It is possible to see ~59% of the moon from the Earth due to these effects.

  21. Kendel

    Would have been nicer before it was peppered with all the explanatory comments…. :(

  22. MadScientist

    Can we see the Far Side as well?

  23. Kendel (23): As I always do, I linked to the GSFC page with all the stuff on it. Scroll to the bottom and down the original video to your heart’s desire.

  24. JB of Brisbane

    @Simon Green #20 – it’s because in the northern hemisphere, you’re looking at the moon in a direction (very roughly) from east-southeast to west-southwest, while down here south of the Equator, we’re looking from east-northeast to west-northwest.
    It’s not the moon that’s upside-down, it’s us relative to our compatriots north of the Equator.

  25. FYI – Phil, you’re video is now official Space Porn, according to iO9.

  26. Wzrd1

    @20, Simon Green and 20, JB of Brisbane, such references are for the rather common spacial orientationally challenged, who insist upon what is truly relative away from a gravity well, “up and down”.

    @3 & 6, I far prefer my current membership in the League of Libations to Lunar Libration. We have a lot more fun, indeed, discussions on the relative merits of “up and down” and their relative merits for the purpose of locomotion at the end of the meetings are quite interesting! 😉

  27. Troy

    It would be cool if they’d make a similar video that shows the Moon if the far side was the near side.

  28. SkyGazer

    @ Troy
    Now you´ve mentioned it I´m sure they´ll pick up your sugestion.
    I for one would love something like that.

  29. realta fuar

    The moon’s orbit is tipped a little more than 5 degrees relative to the ECLIPTIC, not the earth’s equator.
    The ecliptic is inclined about 23.5 degrees to the earth’s equator, as any intro astronomy student should be able to tell you.

  30. mtskeptic

    I had a cool astronomy moment the other night which this video brought to mind. I was looking at Jupiter and Venus which were in their glory and traced a line of the ecliptic in around to see if there were other planets I hadn’t noticed. I realized the moon which was nearby was a fair bit off up of this line. Then I remembered it orbits at an angle (~5 deg, if I remember.)

    Anyways, it reminded me that the more you know about something, the deeper the appreciation, not less like some would have you believe.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    When I need to know what phase the Moon is in — and it happens several times a month for me — this is where I’ll check.

    Funny. When I want to know the phase of the moon, I’ll generally look at the moon. Am I missing something?

  32. CJ Nerd

    @mtskeptik (33)

    At the moment, if you follow the ecliptic round a bit more, you’ll find Mars.

  33. Matt B.

    @0, Phil, isn’t libration only the east-west motion, and nutation the nodding motion?


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