Lunar shading anomaly?

Over the past two weeks I have observed the sun and the moon in the sky together on three or four different afternoons.  It isn’t uncommon to see the moon during the day, but on these recent occasions I happened to notice something I never noticed before. Something was “wrong” with the picture. Can you see the anomaly in my drawing? Do you have a plausible explanation?

What’s wrong with this picture?

The typical human brain has a visual processing engine that automatically analyzes the relations between illuminated surfaces and shadows and intuitively computes the angle of illumination (direction(s) light would be coming from to produce these effects). Artists usually make light and shadowed areas congruent with logical or plausible sources of illumination, even if the those sources are not included within the picture.

So the scene above grabbed my attention very quickly and prompted me to look at the afternoon sky again for several days in a row.  As the moon grew more full, the discrepancy between the lunar shading and the location of the sun became a little less obvious, but it was still bothersome.

Once the sun sets, leaving only the moon in the sky, the problem is also less obvious. But when they are both up there in the big, blue sky at the very same time, directly opposite each other in the same contiguous volume of clear, empty space, the cognitive dissonance created by the mismatch between the earth-sun-moon angle and the orientation of the shading on the moon is almost maddening.

Its just wrong.

What gives?

Poor Richard

[note: unfortunately I didn’t have a digital camera with which to document this anomaly, but my drawing is schematically very close to what I actually observed on several days this September. Ironically, one of the afternoons in question was on September 22, the date of this year’s International Observe the Moon Night! If you have any photos of this anomaly (showing sun and moon together along with lunar shading that seems inconsistent with the earth-sun-moon angle) or know of any such photos online, please leave a comment with pics or links.]



“Spot Lights” (click image for source)


5 Responses to “Lunar shading anomaly?”

  1. Anthony Says:

    Perhaps the Earth itself reflects light from the sun to the moon, just as the moon reflects light from the sun to Earth. Just an idea, what do you think? That does sound odd, though. Oh yeah, and what about something to do with us unable to perceive the Earth’s curvature?

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Anthony, thanks for the comment. I thought of earth reflection, too, but given the earth-sun-moon angle in my picture, light reflected from the earth would probably illuminate the entire side of the moon facing the earth (creating a full moon appearance) and so would not seem to explain the kind of lunar shading pattern I reproduce in my diagram. I also thought about some kind of atmospheric refraction effect that would alter the apparent positions of the sun and moon as seen from earth’s surface, but that seems like too much of a stretch to explain the large amount of anomaly seen. The angle of refraction would have to be on the order of 40-60 degrees and the effect would have to apply to both the solar and lunar positions which might even tend to cancel each other out. As for earth’s curvature, I can’t think of how that might apply. Can you elaborate on that idea?

      At this point I remain totally baffled.


  2. Anthony Says:

    What about light refracting off dissipated moisture in space, perhaps? Otherwise I’d be pretty baffled too. The anomaly sounds quite significant.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Anthony, besides our atmosphere and the occasional comet trail I think the amount of moisture anywhere within the sphere of our “orbital shell” would be pretty negligible due to solar wind. Thanks for venturing a guess, but I’m going to hit the “wrong answer” button:

      “Aannnkh” 🙂


  3. stephen finch Says:

    Dec.23 moon looks very odd, shading is almost horizontal to the horizon , caping it so to speak , earth tilt ? Beyond 24° ? , moons orbit change ?

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