A rather stupid question, why can we see the moon when it is between the Earth and the Sun?

An example with excellent drawing.


marked as duplicate by John Rennie, user36790, knzhou, Ilmari Karonen, ACuriousMind Jul 7 '16 at 14:39

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • 36
    $\begingroup$ The premise of this question is wrong. You can't see the moon at night when it is between the earth and the sun as shown in your diagram. $\endgroup$ – JBentley Jul 6 '16 at 8:53
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ What you've drawn is a solar eclipse. At that moment, you're not really seeing the moon, only its shadow. When the moon is very close to the sun but not in front of it, it's a "new moon"; only the far side is lit and you can't see the moon very clearly at all. The rest of the time, the moon is at an angle to the sun and you see it partially lit, sometimes at day and sometimes at night. A full moon is when the moon is on the other side of the Earth to the sun. You see it mainly at night. $\endgroup$ – Ben Hillier Jul 6 '16 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ Wow. People are VERY interested in this question $\endgroup$ – user122066 Jul 6 '16 at 13:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JBentley You're spot-on. I've edited the question (and title) to remove "at night" $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Jul 6 '16 at 19:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MontyHarder I don't know if that is an appropriate edit. The OP drew the night time side of the Earth, so I think he genuinely meant to ask that. Plus the edit changes the nature of the question (and therefore breaks the answers), so should probably be a new question if the OP intends that. $\endgroup$ – JBentley Jul 6 '16 at 19:35

The sun doesn't just illuminate the moon directly. The moon is also illuminated by sunlight reflected from the earth. This is called earthshine. This makes the parts of the moon that face us visible even when the sun is on the other side.
enter image description here

According to NASA, it was Leonardo da Vinci who first explained this.

As an example, the brightly lit portion of this photo is illuminated directly by the sun. The rest of the moon, though, is still visible and this is due to earthshine:

enter image description here

Image credit: Steve Jurvetson

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Please don't use unattributed images like that. The appropriate credit is a google search away. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 6 '16 at 14:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Note also that the picture doesn't really depict the Moon "between" the Earth and the Sun. The image data puts it at 2007-01-21 03:17 UTC, and the JPL ephemerides give a Sun-Earth-Moon angle of 26° at that time, which means that the Sun-Earth-Moon system looked more or less like this when the picture was taken. Hardly a "between" situation. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 6 '16 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ I don't belive the question is about lighting. It is about occlusion. The OP is asking why isn't it occluded from site during a new moon if it supposedly on the opposite side of the planet. $\endgroup$ – Octopus Jul 6 '16 at 16:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty it's more 'between' than if it was the far side of the earth $\endgroup$ – snulty Jul 7 '16 at 11:36

The premise of this question is wrong.

If the moon is in between the earth and the sun (as shown on your diagram), and you can see the moon, then it is day, not night:

enter image description here

If on the other hand, you are on the opposite side of the earth during that configuration (so that it is night), then you can't see the moon because the earth is blocking your view of it:

enter image description here

  • 21
    $\begingroup$ This is by far the most valid answer. $\endgroup$ – Michal Paszkiewicz Jul 6 '16 at 9:05
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ Very science, much wow, such +1 $\endgroup$ – MonkeyZeus Jul 6 '16 at 17:50
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Wait, you add text with actual fonts on top of a hand drawn circle? Isn't that kind of backwards for SO? $\endgroup$ – davidbak Jul 6 '16 at 19:24
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @davidbak Clearly their paint skillz are much more advanced than we could ever hope to achieve so we need to ensure to always stay appreciative and never envious of the powers that be :) $\endgroup$ – MonkeyZeus Jul 6 '16 at 19:50
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @davidbak worse, the arrow itself is a cold, technical, boring one, not hand drawn like the original picture. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jul 7 '16 at 8:26

While excellent answers have already been provided (yes, it's Earthshine; yes, when the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth, you don't see the Moon at night, you see it from the daylit side of the Earth) given all the "artist's renderings" in the question and the answers, I thought it might be useful to include a diagram that demonstrates the actual scale of the Earth-Moon system:

Earth-Moon system

This is it. That's how small the Earth (right) and (especially) the Moon (left) are compared to the distance between them.

I did not include the Sun in this diagram. I couldn't. Its diameter would be nearly four times the Earth-Moon distance. And it would be nearly 400 times as distant from the Earth as the Moon:

Sun-Earth system

Not sure how visible the single pixel on the right is, but that single pixel is the Earth-Moon system, shown to scale compared to the little circle on the left representing the Sun, with the distance between the two also at the proper scale.

This scale of things might explain, among other things, why solar eclipses (when the Moon is truly between the Earth and the Sun) are relatively rare.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ To take this to the next level, there is a site that shows the whole solar system to scale if the moon is the size of a single pixel: joshworth.com/dev/pixelspace/pixelspace_solarsystem.html $\endgroup$ – Kevin Jul 6 '16 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for scale. Maybe add in the orbital inclination of the Moon? $\endgroup$ – Chieron Jul 7 '16 at 9:16

If it is really between the earth and the sun it is called a "solar eclipse" and and the moon's shadow falls on the earth at certain places, because it is not large enough to cover the whole sun except on a shadow path.

solar eclipse

A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon completely covers the Sun's disk, as seen in this 1999 solar eclipse. Solar prominences can be seen along the limb (in red) as well as extensive coronal filaments.

One must not look at the moon during the eclipse with naked eyes because of the danger even from the corona of destroying the retina. The intensity is strong enough not to allow for shadows on the moon surface, as seen above.

By contrast, a

total lunar eclipse has the direct sunlight completely blocked by the earth's shadow. The only light seen is refracted through the earth's shadow. This light looks red for the same reason that the sunset looks red, due to rayleigh scattering of the more blue light. Because of its reddish color, a total lunar eclipse is sometimes called a blood moon.

That this does not happen every lunar month ( thanks BenHillier) is because the orbit of the moon around the earth is slanted .

Lunar orbit inclination also determines eclipses; shadows cross when nodes coincide with full and new moon, when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align in three dimensions.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Doesn't the lunar eclipse actually happens when the moon is behind the Earth? If it is between the Earth and the Sun, then it's a solar eclipse. $\endgroup$ – 12123232 Jul 6 '16 at 6:25
  • $\begingroup$ @12123232 you are correct .It is a solar eclipse .I will edit the answer $\endgroup$ – anna v Jul 6 '16 at 8:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "That this does not happen every night ". You meant "every month" I think. It doesn't happen every night because the moon is in a completely different part of the sky! $\endgroup$ – Ben Hillier Jul 6 '16 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ @BenHillier It is because the moons orbit is not in the ecliptic, if it were then once a day an eclipse would happen someplace on earth $\endgroup$ – anna v Jul 6 '16 at 10:13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @annav Sorry! I am really convinced on this one. The moon's orbit is, as you correctly point out, not in the ecliptic. And that is the reason why every new moon is not a solar eclipse; and every full moon is not a lunar eclipse. But for the most of the month, the Moon, Sun and Earth are at angles to each other. $\endgroup$ – Ben Hillier Jul 6 '16 at 10:23

The diagram you drew is flat, but the solar system is not. The Moon's orbit is not in the same plane as the Earth's orbit. Wikipedia has a nice diagram:

Diagram showing how the lunar orbit is not in the ecliptic plane

Because of this, when the Moon is "in between" the Earth and the Sun, it is usually a little "above" or "below" the Sun as well. You can observe this for yourself: one or two days after the new moon, look for the Moon in the sky at sunset. It will be above the Sun, and the bright arc will point toward the Sun. But it will also be a little off to one side or the other. That angle is a combination of the Moon's orbital angle with the ecliptic and the Earth's axial tilt.

(They do sometimes line up perfectly, and then we have a solar eclipse, as mentioned in other answers.)


The moon circles around the earth, so half the time it is between the earth and the sun and half the time the earth is between the sun and the moon.

Therefore also the moon rises and sets, the same way the sun rises and sets.

If it's midnight (your are on the opposite site of the earth than the sun) and the moon is betweem the sun and the earth you can't see it. You can see a half-moon in the late evening or early morning, tough.

  • $\begingroup$ I know, but how can we see it when it is between the sun and the moon? $\endgroup$ – 12123232 Jul 6 '16 at 6:38
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If it's midnight (your are on the opposite site of the earth than the sun) and the moon is betweem the sun and the earth you can't see it. $\endgroup$ – Robin Roth Jul 6 '16 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ You can see a half-moon in the late evening or early morning, tough. $\endgroup$ – Robin Roth Jul 6 '16 at 8:19
  • $\begingroup$ @RobinRoth could you edit your answer to include the information you've put into comments? Without those details, your post doesn't really answer the question as stated. Also, welcome to Physics.SE! If you haven't already done so, please take the tour! $\endgroup$ – Dan Henderson Jul 6 '16 at 12:02

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.