The Titanic and the Moon

by Joe Orman

[Originally published in the newsletter of the East Valley Astronomy Club, April 1998]

I have recently seen the movie "Titanic," which graphically depicts the nighttime sinking of that great ocean liner. During the scenes that show the ship sinking, and afterward when the actors are clinging to floating debris, the movie set is illuminated by a pale light which reflects off the water. While the moon itself is never shown, one gets the impression that the event occurred under a full moon. After seeing the movie, I was curious to find out if this was really the case.

The Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 pm on April 14, 1912 and sank at 2:20 am on the 15th (in the North Atlantic, at the coordinates 41 degrees 44 minutes N, 49 degrees 57 minutes W). Using the astronomical software RedShift 2, I have calculated that the phase of the moon was a waning crescent of 8% illumination, being only 2 days before new. The moon set at 4:00 pm on the 14th (3 hours before sunset), and did not rise until 5:00 am on the 15th, in morning twilight only a half-hour before sunrise. So there was no moon in the sky that night. Venus was also not up, rising at the same time as the moon. The brightest thing in the night sky was Jupiter, low in the SE at the time of the sinking.

No doubt the makers of the movie lit the scene this way for artistic and technical reasons, but the sinking of the ship actually took place in what must have been terrifying near-total darkness.


Thanks to John C. Sherwood of the Battle Creek (MI) Enquirer for the following note:

"The eyewitness accounts at the time also state that, because there was no moon, when the lights went out on the ship indeed everyone was plunged into near total darkness. That made the cracking of the ship in half invisible to all and led to the general conviction that lasted for decades that the ship had plunged to the ocean floor in one piece."

Revised: June 13, 1999
Copyright © 1999 Joe Orman
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