Why Does the Sun Rise in the East (and Set in the West)?

A sunrise from the edge of space. Credit: Project Soar

You may have heard the saying at some point in your life: “The Sun will still rise in the east and set in the west tomorrow.” You get the point, it means it’s not the end of the world. But have you ever wondered why the Sun behaves this way? Why does – and always has, for that matter – the Sun rise in the east and set in the west? What mechanics are behind this?

Naturally, ancient people took the passage of the Sun through the sky as a sign that it was revolving around us. With the birth of modern astronomy, we have come to learn that its actually the other way around. The Sun only appears to be revolving around us because our planet not only orbits it, but also rotates on its axis as it is doing so. From this, we get the familiar passage of the Sun through the sky, and the basis for our measurement of time.

Earth’s Rotation:

As already noted, the Earth rotates on its axis as it circles the Sun. If viewed from above the celestial north, the Earth would appear to be rotating counter-clockwise. Because of this, to those standing on the Earth’s surface, the Sun appears to be moving around us in a westerly direction at a rate of 15° an hour (or 15′ a minute). This is true of all celestial objects observed in the sky, with an “apparent motion” that takes them from east to west.

 

 

Earth's axial tilt (or obliquity) and its relation to the rotation axis and plane of orbit. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Earth’s axial tilt (or obliquity) and its relation to the rotation axis and plane of orbit. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

This is also true of the majority of the planets in the Solar System. Venus is one exception, which rotates backwards compared to its orbit around the Sun (a phenomena known as retrograde motion). Uranus is another, which not only rotates westward, but is inclined so much that it appears to be sitting on its side relative to the Sun.

Pluto also has a retrograde motion, so for those standing on its surface, the Sun would rise in the west and set in the east. In all cases, a large impact is believed to be the cause. In essence, Pluto and Venus were sent spinning in the other direction by a large impact, while another struck Uranus and knocked it over on its side!

With a rotational velocity of 1,674.4 km/h (1,040.4 mph), the Earth takes 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds to rotate once on its axis. This means, in essence, that a sidereal day is less than 24 hours. But combined with its orbital period (see below), a solar day – that is, the time it takes for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky – works out to 24 hours exactly.

Earth’s Orbit Around the Sun:

With an average orbital velocity of 107,200 km/h (66,600 mph), the Earth takes approximately 365.256 days – aka. a sidereal year – to complete a single orbit of the Sun. This means that every four years (in what is known as a Leap Year), the Earth calendar must include an extra day.

Viewed from the celestial north, the motion of the Earth appears to orbit the Sun in a counterclockwise direction. Combined with its axial tilt – i.e. the Earth’s axis is tilted 23.439° towards the ecliptic – this results in seasonal changes. In addition to producing variations in terms of temperature, this also results in variations in the amount of sunlight a hemisphere receives during the course of a year.

Basically, when the North Pole is pointing towards the Sun, the northern hemisphere experiences summer and the southern hemisphere experiences winter.  During the summer, the climate warms up and the sun appears earlier in the morning sky and sets at a later hour in the evening. In the winter, the climate becomes generally cooler and the days are shorter, with sunrise coming later and sunset happening sooner.

Above the Arctic Circle, an extreme case is reached where there is no daylight at all for part of the year – up to six months at the North Pole itself, which is known as a “polar night”. In the southern hemisphere, the situation is exactly reversed, with the South Pole experiencing a “midnight sun” – i.e. a day of 24 hours.

And last, but not least, seasonal changes also result in changes in the Sun’s apparent motion across the sky. During summer in the northern hemisphere, the Sun appears to move from east to west directly overhead, while moving closer to the southern horizon during winter. During summer in the southern hemisphere, the Sun appears to move overhead; while in the winter, it appears to be closer to the northern horizon.

In short, the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west because of our planet’s rotation. During the course of the year, the amount of daylight we experience is mitigated by our planet’s tilted axis. If, like Venus, Uranus and Pluto, a large enough asteroid or celestial object were to strike us just right, the situation might be changed. We too could experience what it is like to watch the Sun rise in the west, and set in the east.

We have written many interesting articles about planet Earth here at Universe Today. Here’s Why Does the Earth Spin?, The Rotation of the Earth, How Fast Does the Earth Rotate?, and Why Are There Seasons?

Here’s an article from Cornell’s Ask an Astronomer about this very question. And here’s an article from How Stuff Works that explains the whole Solar System.

Astronomy Cast also has episodes on the subject, like Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All, and Episode 181: Rotation.

Earth’s Highest Clouds Shine at the “Top of the Orbit”

Looking for a new desktop background? This might do nicely: a photo of noctilucent “night-shining” clouds seen above a midnight Sun over Alaska, taken from the ISS as it passed over the Aleutian Islands just after midnight local time on Sunday, August 4.

When this photo was taken Space Station was at the “top of the orbit” — 51.6 ºN, the northernmost latitude that it reaches during its travels around the planet.

According to the NASA Earth Observatory site, “some astronauts say these wispy, iridescent clouds are the most beautiful phenomena they see from orbit.” So just what are they? Read on…

Found about 83 km (51 miles) up, noctilucent clouds (also called polar mesospheric clouds, or PMCs) are the highest cloud formations in Earth’s atmosphere. They form when there is just enough water vapor present to freeze into ice crystals. The icy clouds are illuminated by the Sun when it’s just below the horizon, after darkness has fallen or just before sunrise, giving them their eponymous property.

NLCs seen in the southern hemisphere in Jan. 2010 (NASA)
NLCs seen in the southern hemisphere in Jan. 2010 (NASA)

Noctilucent clouds have also been associated with rocket launches, space shuttle re-entries, and meteoroids, due to the added injection of water vapor and upper-atmospheric disturbances associated with each. Also, for some reason this year the clouds appeared a week early.

Read more: Noctilucent Clouds — Electric Blue Visitors from the Twilight Zone

Some data suggest that these clouds are becoming brighter and appearing at lower latitudes, perhaps as an effect of global warming putting more greenhouse gases like methane into the atmosphere.

“When methane makes its way into the upper atmosphere, it is oxidized by a complex series of reactions to form water vapor,” said James Russell, the principal investigator of NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) project and a professor at Hampton University. “This extra water vapor is then available to grow ice crystals for NLCs.”

A comparison of noctilucent cloud formation from 2012 and 2013 has been compiled using data from the AIM spacecraft. You can see the sequence here.

And for an incredible motion sequence of noctilucent clouds — taken from down on the ground — check out the time-lapse video below by Maciej Winiarczyk, coincidentally made at around the same time as the ISS photo above:

(The video was featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for August 19, 2013.)

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Terminator

Geological Period

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No, this isn’t a movie about robots. The terminator is the line that separates day from night on an object lit by a star. You can see evidence of this terminator when you look at the Moon. When we see the Moon, half in light and half in darkness, we’re seeing the terminator line going right down the middle of the Moon.

From our perspective here on Earth, we see the Sun rise from the East, go through the sky and then set again in the West. But if you could see the Earth from space, you would see half the planet is always illuminated, and half the planet is always in shadow. Since the Earth is rotating, we can watch different parts of the planet illuminated, and other parts darkened. The people on the surface of the planet are experiencing the Sun moving through the sky, but really it’s them who are doing the moving.

The location of the terminator depends on the axial tilt of the object. Since the Earth is tilted by 23.5° away from the Sun’s axis, the position of the terminator changes depending on the season. During summer in the northern horizon, the Earth’s north pole never goes into shadow, so the terminator never crosses the pole. And then in winter in the northern horizon, it never comes out of shadow.

If you could orbit the Earth, just above the equator, you would see the terminator line speeding away at approximately 1,600 km/h (1000 miles per hour). Only the fastest supersonic aircraft can match the terminator’s speed. But as you get closer to the poles, the terminator moves more slowly. Eventually at the poles, you can walk faster than the speed of the terminator.

When you see a terminator from afar, it can tell you a lot about a planet or moon. For example, the Earth’s terminator is fuzzy. This means that our planet has a thick atmosphere that scatters the light from the Sun. The Moon, on the other hand, is airless, so its terminator is a crisp line. When you’re standing on the surface of the Moon, it’s either bright or dark, not the in-between twilight that we experience here on Earth.

We have written many articles about the terminator for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and here are some Earthrise photos.

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Reference:
NASA Earth Observatory