What Causes the Lunar Cycle to Occur?

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What Causes the Lunar Cycle to Occur?

The lunar cycle is a fascinating phenomenon that has captivated human beings for centuries. For millennia, people have marveled at the beauty of the moon and tried to understand its mysterious behavior. One of the most intriguing aspects of the moon is its cycle, which involves a series of phases that repeat over a span of roughly 29.5 days. But what causes this cycle to occur? In this article, we will delve into the scientific explanations behind the lunar cycle, exploring the various factors that contribute to its occurrence.

The Basics of the Lunar Cycle

Before we dive into the causes of the lunar cycle, let’s first understand its basic characteristics. The lunar cycle, also known as the lunar month, refers to the period it takes for the moon to go through one complete set of phases. These phases are traditionally divided into eight categories: new moon, waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous, full moon, waning gibbous, third quarter, and waning crescent. These phases occur due to the interplay between the positions of the sun, earth, and moon.

The Influence of the Moon’s Orbit

To understand the causes of the lunar cycle, we need to examine the moon’s orbit around the earth. The orbit of the moon is not a perfect circle; instead, it is slightly elliptical. This means that at different points in its orbit, the moon is varying distances away from the earth. When the moon is at its closest point, called perigee, it is about 225,623 miles (363,104 kilometers) away from Earth. Conversely, at its farthest point, called apogee, the moon is approximately 252,088 miles (405,696 kilometers) away.

The varying distance between the earth and the moon has a significant impact on the lunar cycle. When the moon is closer to the earth, its gravitational pull is stronger, resulting in higher tidal forces. These higher tidal forces produce what is known as a spring tide, where the ocean tides are more pronounced. Conversely, when the moon is farther away from the earth, the tidal forces are weaker, resulting in lower tides known as neap tides.

The Role of the Sun

While the moon’s orbit plays a crucial role in the lunar cycle, it is not the only factor at play. The position of the sun relative to the moon and the earth also greatly influences the lunar phases. We often think of the moon as emitting its own light, but in reality, the moon reflects sunlight. The only reason we see the moon is because it reflects the sun’s light back to us.

As the moon orbits the earth, different portions of its surface are illuminated by the sun’s rays. When the moon is between the sun and the earth, the side that faces away from us is fully illuminated, creating the full moon phase. As the moon progresses in its orbit, we see less and less of its illuminated surface until it appears as a thin crescent during the new moon phase.

The Phases of the Lunar Cycle

Phase Description Illumination
New Moon The moon is positioned between the sun and earth, with the side facing us in complete darkness. 0%
Waxing Crescent A small sliver of the moon becomes visible as it moves away from the new moon phase. 1%-49%
First Quarter Half of the moon is illuminated, creating a “half moon” shape. 50%
Waxing Gibbous The visible portion of the moon continues to grow, filling up more than half but not completely. 51%-99%
Full Moon The side of the moon facing us is fully illuminated, creating a round disk of light. 100%
Waning Gibbous The portion of the moon visible to us starts to shrink, with less than a complete disc of light. 99%-51%
Third Quarter Half of the moon is illuminated, but it appears opposite to the phase seen during the first quarter. 50%
Waning Crescent A small sliver of moon becomes visible, opposite to the waxing crescent phase. 1%-49%

Synchronized Movements

So far, we have discussed the impact of the moon’s orbit and the position of the sun on the lunar cycle. However, to fully comprehend why the lunar cycle occurs, we need to understand how these factors synchronize with each other.

As the moon orbits the earth, its position relative to the sun and earth constantly changes. The lunar month begins with the new moon phase, where the moon is positioned between the sun and the earth. Over the course of roughly 14 days, the moon moves to the first quarter phase and eventually reaches the full moon phase by the halfway mark of the lunar month. Following this, the moon progresses into its waning phases, leading back to the new moon once again.

It is important to note that the lunar cycle does not perfectly align with the duration of a month on the Gregorian calendar. This is why the dates of the full moon and other lunar phases vary from year to year. In fact, the word “month” itself is derived from the word “moon,” highlighting the significant influence the lunar cycle has had on human timekeeping systems.


In conclusion, the lunar cycle is primarily caused by the interplay between the moon’s orbit around the earth and the position of the sun relative to the moon and the earth. As the moon progresses through its orbit, different portions of its surface are illuminated, giving rise to the distinct phases of the lunar cycle. Additionally, the varying distance between the moon and the earth affects the strength of tidal forces, resulting in different tidal patterns throughout the cycle. Understanding the mechanics behind the lunar cycle allows us to appreciate the beauty and wonder of this celestial phenomenon that has fascinated humanity for millennia.

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What Causes the Lunar Cycle to Occur?