Observing the Moon

The Full Moon is beautiful with the naked eye, stunning when seen through binoculars, and a true spectacle when seen through a telescope.

The most obvious features on the Moon are the white regions and large dark patches. The white regions are uneven rocky highlands, and the dark areas are lower-lying, flatter areas.

Photo by Carol Botha. MT = Mare Tranquillitatis (Sea of Tranquillity), MS = Mare Serenitatis (Sea of Serenity), C = Copernicus, T = Tycho.

Two prominent low-land regions are labelled on the accompanying photograph: Mare Tranquillitatis (MT) and Mare Serenitatis (MS).

Two bright spots are also marked. Both are impact craters – huge holes bashed into the lunar surface by space rocks. Copernicus, situated in a low-lying region, is about 90 km from side to side. Tycho is slightly smaller, and younger. Look out for the stripes that radiate away from Tycho – these are ejecta rays, huge splashes of rock and dust splattered across the lunar surface from the impact that formed the crater.

A more complete description of prominent lunar features can be found in the Sky Guide, the astronomical handbook for Southern Africa, published by the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa and Struik.

When and where to see the Moon

More often than not, the Moon rises in the east and sets in the west. However, depending on the phase of the Moon and the time of the year, the rising might actually occur in the east-northeast or east-southeast, and the setting might take place in the west-northwest or west-southwest.

The time of the Moon’s rising and setting depends on the date, and your location. These times are given in the Sky Guide Africa South (published by the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa & Struik; for sale at all cool bookshops). You can also find several websites and apps that will calculate these times for your location.

The best thing to do is to familiarise yourself with the cycle of the Moon from your location. Go outside and look for it; the table below will give you some clues to finding it. You’ll soon notice that the Moon rises or sets roughly speaking 45 minutes later every day.

New Moonat sunriseat noonat sunset
waxing crescentbefore noonbefore sunsetbefore midnight
First Quarterat noonat sunsetat midnight
waxing gibbousafter noonafter sunsetafter midnight
Full Moonat sunsetat midnightat sunrise
waning gibbousafter sunsetafter midnightafter sunrise
Last Quarterat midnightat sunriseat noon
waning crescentafter midnightafter sunriseafter noon

Keep in mind that the Moon may be hidden behind a distant building, tree, or mountain. In fact, identify landmarks on your horizons that will make finding the Moon easier next time.

If you are planning on watching or photographing a specific Moon (say, the next Full Moon), practice a day or two in advance. From one day to the next, where the Moon rises or sets, does not change by much. Make a sketch or take a photo when the Moon is near the horizon, which will help in locating it the next day.


A special delight is observing a lunar eclipse, a beautiful and rare event when the Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon. During a total eclipse, the Moon is completely covered by our planet’s shadow. When only a portion of the Moon is hidden by the shadow, the eclipse is said to be partial.

A total eclipse can only happen during a Full Moon. The dates of all total and partial eclipses, visible from Africa, between 2020 and 2100, are listed on our lunar eclipse page.

Heritage Full Moons in South Africa

MonthFirst Full MoonSecond Full Moon
JanuaryMantis MoonLeopard Moon
FebruaryDassie Moon——
MarchHarvest MoonOchre Moon
AprilDiamond MoonGold Moon
MayFrost MoonFire Moon
JuneSisters MoonHoney Moon
JulyMeerkat MoonProtea Moon
AugustPeace MoonDusty Moon
SeptemberSpring MoonBlue Crane Moon
OctoberWhale MoonElephant Moon
NovemberMilk MoonWool Moon
DecemberSpringbok MoonEland Moon

Protecting South Africa’s astronomical heritage