Why Does the Moon Look So Much Bigger When It Is Near the Horizon?

An image of the moon over the ocean.
The effect of the moon looking much larger near the horizon is known as the moon illusion. Yaorusheng / Getty Images

Have you ever looked up on the night of a full moon and asked yourself, "Why is the moon so big tonight?" This question has been pondered for hundreds if not thousands of years. This problem is commonly referred to as the moon illusion.

Some have speculated that there is some effect that causes the atmosphere to act like a magnifying glass making the moon look bigger when the moon rises or sets. It turns out that any distortion caused by the earth's atmosphere would actually make the moon look a little smaller.


Shape Constancy

Most scientists agree that the reason the moon looks bigger is purely in our minds. Our mind interprets the things we see in interesting ways. For instance, if you look at any door frame you can see that it is rectangular. But if you were to sketch the outline of the door frame from the angle that you are looking at it, most likely you would sketch a trapezoid. Your mind adjusts the door so that you perceive it as a rectangle from whatever angle you look at it. That theory is called shape constancy.

Door frames down a hallway appear trapezoidal.
Door frames down a hallway appear trapezoid-shaped, even though we know they are rectangular.
LadadikArt / Shutterstock


Size Constancy

Take a look at the picture below. Both power poles are the same size, but appear to be different. Your mind accounts for the distance and decides that the back pole (B) is farther away that the front pole (A), so your brain adjusts the size to make up for the increased distance. This phenomenon is called size constancy.

Two power poles at different distances demonstrate the phenomenon of size constancy.
Two power poles demonstrate size constancy.
Dietrich Leppert / Shutterstock

Size constancy is happening all the time. If you look down the street and see a sports car about 50 feet away, and behind it, about 100 feet away is a big SUV, you know that the SUV is bigger, even though it produces a smaller image on your eye.


The Moon Illusion During Different Lunar Phases

The moon illusion is not limited to the full moon phase alone. The physical size of the moon remains consistent across all its phases, whether it's a new moon, a crescent moon, an average full moon or the rarer blue moon, or gibbous moon.

However, the magnitude of the illusion often seems more profound during a full moon due to its increased brightness and complete shape, making the discrepancy between its perceived size at the horizon versus directly overhead more evident. Regardless of the phase, the underlying psychological and atmospheric reasons for the moon illusion persist.


Theories About Why The Moon Appears Larger

One theory about the moon illusion says that when the moon is near the horizon we perceive the moon's distance to be farther away from us than when it is high in the sky. But since the moon is actually the same size, our minds make it look bigger when it is near the horizon to compensate for the increased distance.

One way that you can convince your mind that it's just an illusion is to bend over at the waist and look at the moon upside down through your legs.


An alternative explanation holds that the moon illusion is caused by the way our eyes focus on distant and close objects. When we focus on the horizon moon, we focus on the moon at a great distance. The overhead moon lacks visual cues that tell us how far away the moon is, so we focus on the moon as if it was a short distance away. See here for the details of this theory.

So, for now, the right answer is that there is no right answer. But the one thing people agree on is that the moon does not physically change its size or distance from Earth at any point during the moon's orbit; it's an optical illusion. It's all in our heads.

Here are some interesting links:

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Moon Near the Horizon FAQ

Does the Moon appear larger near the horizon?
The Moon can appear larger near the horizon due to the Moon illusion.
How much larger do people perceive the Moon to be when it's near the horizon?
The moon appears about 14% larger in diameter or to have about 30% more area.