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The Moon looks huge!!

June 24, 2008 on 4:13 pm | In Astronomy |

Have you ever seen the Moon shortly after it rises, and had it look huge to you? Maybe you’ve seen something like this:

Or maybe, if you don’t happen to be living by the Temple of Poseidon in Greece, it looks more like this:

And yet, when the Moon gets higher in the sky, it appears much smaller. Here’s the bizarre thing, though. When I photograph the Moon with a camera, it doesn’t appear any bigger at the horizon than anywhere else in the sky; on film, it looks to be the same size everywhere.

What’s going on? I think it’s pretty clear that your eyes are playing tricks on you, but how? The answer (from NASA) is that we still don’t know. Regardless of where the Moon is, it forms the same size image on your retina.

But there are two possible explanations, and they both have to do with the fact that seeing is relative. Why don’t you listen to both of them, and then tell me which one you like better:

1. We don’t know where the sky is. When we look at the horizon, we think of “the edge of the sky” as being farther away than when we look up. This is called the “flattened sky” model.

2. Trees and temples and whatever’s on the horizon looks like it converges to smaller and smaller sizes on the horizon, so that something that’s the same angular size looks bigger based on its surroundings. Here’s an example with train tracks; both yellow lines are the same size, even though the top one appears larger; this is called Ponzo’s illusion.

Finally, if you don’t like either of these explanations, there are other alternatives here from a retired professor, here from two psychologists, and some further explanation from a physicist.

My take? I think it has to do with the fact that we perceive things based on our surroundings. When the Moon is close to the horizon, we recognize that it’s much farther away to the objects that are seen relative to it, and yet is the same size as a tree or a temple. In the sky, all you have is clouds, if that. There’s nothing relative to compare it to, but at the horizon there is. If you want proof that it isn’t an atmospheric effect, look at the horizon Moon through your fingers like this, so you can’t see anything except the Moon:

and you’ll see that it appears to shrink! Neat, hmm?


16 Comments »

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  1. Its always weird when you witness it and pay attention to it.

    Comment by mark a. thomas — June 24, 2008 #

  2. Maybe for you; it’s a lot weirder to me now that I’ve got my new glasses. Who knew you could see such detail with good eyes?

    Comment by ethan — June 25, 2008 #

  3. […] Start With A Bang!: The Moon looks huge!! Because who doesn’t love the moon, […]

    Pingback by Slacker Astronomy » Carnival of Space No. 60 — June 26, 2008 #

  4. Now that you’ve mentioned it, it does look bigger every once in a while.

    Thanks for the tip regarding this!

    Comment by Darnell Clayton — June 28, 2008 #

  5. i have only seen this once, when i was about five or six. we had gone to pick my dad up from work. the moon was so huge, i thought it was going to crash into the planet!!! ive never seen anything so beautiful to this day though.

    Comment by dylan — June 21, 2009 #

  6. My dad, whom was very intelligent, said that the moon was being magnified by the thickest part of the earth’s atmosphere, long ways, as it sits on the horizon. As it “rises” it appears to become smaller because the higher it gets, the less thick the atmosphere you see it through. Even though there are five layers of atmosphere, it is thickest near the surface and thins out with height until it eventually merges with space. Think of it as looking through a glass of water from side to side versus looking through it from top to bottom. Same glass, same water, totally different view because of the thickness of what lies between.

    Comment by Rainy — November 12, 2009 #

  7. I love the moon. It fascinates me everytime i look at it fore example right now. I’m a complete MoOnLoVeR and everyone thinks I’m crazy whenever I tell them to look at it. They don’t understand that these little things that happen every night are the things we should appreciate like the stars, the sky, the clouds, the sun and of course the moon! I was wondering, does the moon really look likr that at the Temple of Poseidon? If it does, I’m soooo taking a trip to Greece just to see it :)

    Comment by Janni Ramirez — July 3, 2010 #

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  14. Your father is an idiot. It has nothing to do with the atmosphere.

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