Explainer

Why This Huge Full Moon Seems to Be Falling From the Sky

A video taken near a volcano may look like Hollywood at work, but it’s really a great example of how science can mess with your mind.

Moon Setting Behind Teide Volcano


“These people are not in danger.”

So begins NASA’s explanation of a stunning video published June 1, which shows a monster moon quickly approaching a dozen or so humans perched on a ridge. Just as rapidly, the looming lunar orb then starts to sink behind the ridge, looking for all the world as if it is falling from the sky.

Why, you might ask, is NASA getting so excited about a sci-fi movie clip, or some internet illusion created with a dash of editing skulduggery? Spoiler: They’re not.

Daniel López, a photographer based in the Canary Islands, shot this scene on the morning of May 30 from a perch near Tenerife’s Mount Teide volcano, capturing the otherworldly landscape as the sun rose and the full moon set. (The first of its kind for the month of May, this particular full moon is traditionally known as the flower moon, corn planting moon, or milk moon by various cultures, in case you’re curious.)

The resulting video is real and unaltered—and it’s a great illustration of how science can play tricks on us.

First, the reason for the moon’s seeming humongousness is surprisingly simple. López used a telephoto lens to capture the scene, which can dramatically compress the apparent distance between objects in the foreground and those in the background. This is a very common effect in photos of whales far off the California coastline, which often appear to be breaching within several feet of the shore.

In this particular shot, the mini-humans are perched atop a volcano roughly 10 miles away. Our celestial companion is really about 240,000 miles behind them, positioned so that its fully illuminated disk perfectly frames the volcano’s summit.

As for why the moon appears to move so quickly, that’s the result of Earth’s rotation and not a trick of time-lapse photography or an accelerated video playback.

Spinning at about a thousand miles an hour, Earth’s perpetual pirouetting is normally imperceptible to those of us on the surface, except when we stare for a long while at objects in the sky and or shadows on the ground. Once again, the extremely compressed distance in these images both illuminates the rate at which our planet twirls and accentuates the size of Earth’s lunar friend.

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