Picture of spiral made from different colored moons.

A purple moon? See 48 stunning lunar hues

After 10 years of taking pictures of full moons, a photographer has captured lunar light in a rainbow of colors.

Through her range of images, Marcella Giulia Pace shows how Earth’s atmospheric blanket affects the way we see the moon.
COMPOSITE OF 48 IMAGES

The moon’s actual color is an off-white brown-gray when its dusty surface is sunlit. But Earth’s atmosphere modifies our views of the moon, altering colors and shape. Italian photographer Marcella Giulia Pace, who has captured lunar variations for 10 years, chose 48 of her images to compare in this spiral montage.

The varied colors appear when the moon is seen or photographed through stratified and irregular gas layers of Earth’s atmospheric blanket. Tiny air molecules in the layers scatter light that hits them, and their structure causes blue light to scatter more readily than red or orange. (Explore the atlas of moons.)

When, for example, Pace photographs the moon through the densest air—as it rises and as it sits just above the horizon—this phenomenon is especially intense, glowing more red or orange. Other materials in the atmosphere—water droplets, dust, wildfire smoke—also influence the path of light and affect the moon’s hue, and those colors are specific to the suspended materials themselves.

The moon’s apparent shape also is altered as the light it emits travels through the stratified air. Because the atmosphere nearest Earth’s surface is much denser than high above, the path of light traveling those varied densities will bend. The result: The light’s source appears as a squished ellipse instead of a lunar disk.

Going purple

The daytime sky’s scattered blue light tints a just risen color-altered red moon (March 12, 2017).

Getting squished

Light passing through varied atmospheric densities is bent, changing how the moon’s shape appears (February 15, 2014).

Catching shade

During a total lunar eclipse, when the moon is in Earth’s shadow, bent red light falls on its surface (July 27, 2018).

This story appears in the February 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Read This Next

Grief drove a photographer to India. She found joy.
Why do we age?
What causes earthquakes?

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet