Lunar Phase: Earth’s Shadow has Nothing to do with It

It can be surprising that many people believe that the lunar phase is caused by the Earth casting its shadow on the surface of the Moon. Flat-Earthers are no exception. But they take it one step further and use the misconception do “disprove” the fact that Earth is a sphere. They are wrong. The lunar phase is the shape of the sunlit part of the Moon seen from the observer.

On the other hand, the phenomenon where the Earth casting its shadow on the surface of the Moon is called the lunar eclipse. Moon phase occurs all the time and undergoes a monthly cycle, while a lunar eclipse happens only a couple times in a year.

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Sunrays are Practically Parallel, but not Perfectly Parallel

The Sun emits sunrays to every direction. But as the Sun is very far, the sun rays that reach us are practically parallel. To an observer on Earth, the rays of light coming from the Sun form a maximum angle of about 0.53°. They are practically parallel, but not perfectly parallel.

Flat-Earthers often question the fact we say sun rays are parallel, but in any diagram of an eclipse, they are drawn at an angle. They merely confuse practicality with perfection. Sunrays are practically parallel, but they are not perfectly parallel.

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Orbital Inclination: The Reason an Eclipse Does Not Occur Every Month

The orbit of the Earth and that of the Moon are not perfectly aligned in the same plane. The orbital plane of the Moon is inclined 5.145° from the Earth’s orbital plane. This is the reason an eclipse does not happen every month.

Sometimes we see flat-Earthers claim that an eclipse should happen every month. But it does not, and they take that as ‘evidence’ of the failure of modern science to explain the occurrence of an eclipse. Their mistake is that they don’t account for the orbital inclination.

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The Saros Cycle and Prediction of Eclipses

A long time ago, Babylonians carefully maintained records of the occurrence of eclipses and used these records to predict future eclipses. To honor that, in 1691, Edmund Halley named the interval in a cycle of eclipse using a Babylonian unit of time: the “Saros.”

NASA explained the Saros in a web page titled Eclipses and the Saros, and the unscrupulous flat-Earthers were quick to devise a conspiracy theory. They invented the scenario that NASA —a space agency with billions of dollars of a budget— are somehow using ancient technology to predict the occurrences of an eclipse. They are wrong. NASA does not use the Saros Cycle to predict eclipses.

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Predicting Eclipses Does Not Require the Saros Cycle or NASA’s Involvement

These days, predicting eclipses is easily done using computers. Prediction is made by determining the position of the Sun and the Moon at a time, and calculating if an eclipse happens. The same procedure is then repeated numerous time, each for a different time.

The victims of the flat-Earth dogma insist nobody can predict eclipses from the position of the Sun and the Moon. They believe NASA simply used the Saros cycle to predict eclipses by calculating the interval between eclipses. They are wrong.

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Atmospheric Refraction

Light waves are not always moving in a straight line. When it passes through a medium of a different refractive index, the waves will deviate. The phenomenon is called refraction and described according to Snell’s Law.

Earth’s atmosphere has variation in air density that depends on the altitude. As the refractive index changes with the density of the medium, light waves passing through Earth’s atmosphere also experience refraction.

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The Saros Cycle and Saros Series

A page on NASA’s website is at the center of the attention of flat-Earth followers. It is a page created by Fred ‘Mr. Eclipse’ Espenak, explaining the Saros cycle. Here’s the first paragraph from the page:

The periodicity and recurrence of eclipses is governed by the Saros cycle, a period of approximately 6,585.3 days (18 years 11 days 8 hours). It was known to the Chaldeans as a period when lunar eclipses seem to repeat themselves, but the cycle is applicable to solar eclipses as well.

After they discovered that the said ‘Chaldeans’ was a civilization from 25 centuries ago, they got excited and jumped to the conclusion that NASA used ancient technology to predict eclipses, and thus eclipses can’t be predicted from the motion of the Sun, Earth and Moon themselves.

Like other similar cases, this tells us more about the flat-Earthers themselves than about NASA.

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Selenelion: The Phenomenon Where The Sun and Moon Are Visible During a Total Lunar Eclipse

“The Sun and the Moon have been observed to appear in the sky at the same time during a total lunar eclipse. This cannot happen if the Earth is round because the Sun, Earth and Moon are supposed to be in a straight line during a total lunar eclipse. So, the globe Earth model is wrong!”

Some flat-Earthers observed the Sun and Moon appear at the same time during a total lunar eclipse. Predictably enough, they pick the most far-fetched explanation, and conclude the Earth is not round. But in reality, this phenomenon is well documented and clearly explained.

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Brightness of a Total Lunar Eclipse

“Looking at the pictures of the progression of a lunar eclipse, the Moon turns red, but there’s no apparent change of brightness of the Moon as it progresses from full moon to total eclipse. Therefore, a total lunar eclipse cannot be the result of the Earth casting its shadow on the surface of the Moon.”

Some flat-Earthers —presumably never seen a total lunar eclipse in person before— actually claim that.

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Lunar Phase and Lunar Eclipse

Apparently it is a very common misconception that the phases of the Moon is caused by the Earth’s shadow. Not only among flat-Earthers, but the general public as well. The difference is that flat-Earthers will usually jump to conclusion, and have some outlandish interpretation about this.

In reality, the phases of the Moon happen because we see a different sunlit part of the Moon at different time. Not because it is over the shadow of the Earth.

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