I read that the apparent motion of the moon is approximately its diameter every hour. However, we just observed the moon appearing to rise through a stationary cloud in about 10 minutes, it definitely appeared that the moon moved through its diameter as it rose far faster.

My son thought this was some kind of lensing effect at the horizon, but that makes the moon appear larger at the horizon, and this seemed far too fast.

If anything what we read is that the moon should appear to move slower near the horizon. As far as we could tell, the cloud was stationary, and we watched the moon steadily get covered until it was completely hidden behind the cloud.

Obviously the moon moves at different rates depending on its distance to the earth, but that is a tiny figure. This must have been some optical illusion.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The sky is about 360 moon-diameters across, but the moon certainly doesn't take 15 days to cross the sky. $\endgroup$ Aug 1, 2023 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ but that makes the moon appear larger at the horizon — no it doesn't: to the contrary, it makes the moon smaller in vertical direction, so that a disk becomes flattened to an ellipse. The fact that it seems larger (but doesn't "appear", since e.g. if you take a photo, you'll notice it's the same angular width as in the zenith) is known as the Moon illusion. $\endgroup$
    – Ruslan
    Aug 1, 2023 at 18:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Ruslan One of the things that is why the Moon looks bigger near the horizon can be, how human cognition negotiates the elevation-distance combination. More frequent terrain differences humans encounter in day-to-day experience are way less than their typical distance to the horizon. So the brain may use an additional logic parameter that the same angular size + more slope from the horizontal plane means a nearby location. So smaller is the impression. That may be why even the astronauts at ISS notice this effect although there are almost no background objects other than the earth. $\endgroup$ Feb 1 at 8:52
  • $\begingroup$ @JacobMiller given that the astronauts aren't always aligned with their heads to zenith, I doubt your explanation makes much sense, especially without any actual citations of the astronauts' evidence. $\endgroup$
    – Ruslan
    Feb 1 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Ruslan It is just one of the "maybe" factors. There are likely several factors at play here. Also, note that ISS is under microgravity. So Astronaut's sense of their orientation is also impeded. So it might be usual for the brain to consider a much bigger earth as terrain. $\endgroup$ Feb 3 at 6:15

1 Answer 1


You are confusing two different motions:

  • Celestial objects appear to move 15 degrees per hour from east to west due to the Earth's rotation.
  • The Moon appears to move approximately 0.5 degrees (its diameter) per hour west to east relative to the stars due to the Moon's orbit around the Earth.

The motion you were "measuring" with the cloud was the 15 degrees per hour. A few minutes to cover the Moon's diameter is reasonable.

Note: The rate is 15 degrees per hour in motion in right ascension, and is only accurate for how far an object moves in the sky when the object is near the celestial equator. The actual motion also depends on the cosine of the declination. (Polaris and sigma Octans, the pole stars, also move at 15 degrees per hour in right ascension, but being near the poles, they hardly move in the sky; that is, cosine(90)=0.)

In the case of the Moon rise, the Moon is generally rising at some angle instead of "straight" up from the horizon or cloud line. In other words, the Moon is moving "up and right" for example. This also adds to the time it would take to move its apparent diameter.

  • $\begingroup$ There is also a difference due to the parallax. The Moon passing the local meridian of the observer travels (apparently) faster than at the horizon. However, this might be a slight difference. $\endgroup$ Feb 1 at 7:26

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