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.

What Makes Mars Sunsets Different from Earth’s?

Even robots can’t tear their eyes from a beautiful sunset. NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover pointed its high resolution mast camera at the setting Sun to capture this 4-image sequence on April 15 at the conclusion of the mission’s 956th Martian day. While it resembles an earthly sunset, closer inspection reveals alien oddities.

A day on Mars lasts 24 hours and 39 minutes, so sunrise and sunset follow nearly the same rhythm as they do on Earth. When we eventually establish a base there, astronauts should be able to adjust to the planet’s day-night rhythm with relative ease. Jet lag would be worse.

But sunsets and sunrises offer a different palette of colors than they would on Earth. For starters, the Sun only radiates the equivalent of a partly cloudy afternoon’s worth of light. That’s because Mars’ average distance from the Sun is 141.6 million miles or about half again Earth’s distance. Increased distance reduces the intensity of sunlight.

Not only that, but the solar disk shrinks from the familiar 0.5° across we see from Earth to 0.35° at Mars. Here on the home planet, your little finger extended at arm’s length would cover the equivalent of two Suns. On Mars it would be three!

Wide view of sunset over Gusev Crater taken by NASA's Spirit Rover in 2005. Both blue aureole and pink sky are seen. Because of the fine nature of Martian dust, it can scatter blue light coming from the Sun forward towards the observer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Wide view of sunset over Gusev Crater taken by NASA’s Spirit Rover in 2005. Both blue aureole and pink sky are seen. Because of the fine nature of Martian dust, it can scatter blue light coming from the Sun forward towards the observer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What about color? Dust and other fine particles in the atmosphere scatter the blues and greens from the setting or rising Sun to color it yellow, orange and red. When these tints are reflected off clouds, sunset colors are amplified and spread about the sky, making us reach for that camera phone to capture the glory.

Things are a little different on Mars. The ever-present fine dust in the Martian atmosphere absorbs blue light and scatters the warmer colors, coloring the sky well away from the Sun a familiar ruddy hue. At the same time, dust particles in the Sun’s direction scatter blue light forward to create a cool, blue aureole near the setting Sun. If you were standing on Mars, you’d only notice the blue glow when the Sun was near the horizon, the time when its light passes through the greatest depth of atmosphere and dust.

This was the first sunset observed in color by Curiosity. The color has been calibrated and white-balanced to remove camera artifacts. Mastcam sees color much the way the human eye does, although it's a little less sensitive to blue. The Sun's disk itself appears pink because all the cooler colors have been scattered away, similar to why the Sun on Earth appears orange or red when near the horizon. Notice the rocky ridge in the foreground. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.
This was the first sunset observed in color by Curiosity. The color has been calibrated and white-balanced to remove camera artifacts. Mastcam sees color much the way the human eye does, although it’s a little less sensitive to blue. The Sun’s disk itself appears pink because all the cooler colors have been scattered away, similar to why the Sun on Earth appears orange or red when near the horizon. Notice the individual rocks poking up from the ridge in the foreground. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.

On Earth, blue light from the Sun is scattered by air molecules and spreads around the sky to create a blue canopy. Mars has less the 1% of Earth’s atmosphere, so we only notice the blue when looking through the greatest thickness of the Martian air (and dust) around the time of sunset and sunrise.


Sunset on Mars photographed by the Opportunity Rover released earlier this year

The video above of the setting Sun was made using stills taken by Opportunity, NASA’s “other” rover that’s been trekking across the Martian landscape for more than 10 years now. You can see a bit of pink in the Sun just before it sets as in the Curiosity photos, but there’s something else going on, too. Or not going on.

Sunrise of Lake Superior. Atmospheric refraction - bending of the Sun's light - flattens the disk into an oval shape. Credit: Lyle Anderson
Sunrise of Lake Superior. Atmospheric refraction – bending of the Sun’s light – flattens the disk into an oval shape. Credit: Lyle Anderson

When the Sun sets or rises on Earth, it’s squashed like a melon due to atmospheric refraction. Much thicker air adjacent to the horizon bends the Sun’s light upward, pushing the bottom of the solar disk into the top half which is less affected by refraction because it’s slightly higher. Once the Sun rises high enough, so we’re looking at it through less atmosphere, refraction diminishes and it becomes a circle again.

I’ve looked at both the Opportunity sunset and Curiosity sunset videos many times, and as far as I can tell, the Sun’s shape doesn’t change. At least it’s not noticeable to the casual eye. I bet you can guess why — the air is too thin to for refraction to make much of a difference.

Twilights linger longer on the Red Planet as well because dust lofted high into the stratosphere by storms continues to reflect the Sun’s light for two hours or more after sundown.

So you can see that sunset phenomena on Mars are different from ours because of the unique qualities of its atmosphere. I trust someone alive today will be the first human to see and photograph a Martian sunset. Hope I’m still around when that awesome pic pops up on Twitter.

Astrophoto: Sunset Echo

Sunset on Tatooine? Nah, just an unusual combination of a dazzling orange sunset, clouds and a sun pillar that creates an “echo” effect of the setting Sun. As seen by astrophotographer Dave Walker in the UK on May 31, 2014.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Astrophoto: Double Crepuscular Rays

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I’m not sure how often this happens, but I’ve never seen it before: crepuscular rays on both the west and east horizon at the same time — or crepuscular and anti-crepuscular rays occurring simultaneously. I’m staying out in the wilds of Minnesota this summer, with great views of both horizons and captured these images last evening, June 9, 2012. The word crepuscular means “relating to twilight,” and these rays occur when objects such as mountain peaks or clouds partially shadow the Sun’s rays, usually when the Sun is low on the horizon. These rays are visible only when the atmosphere contains enough haze or dust particles so that sunlight in unshadowed areas can be scattered toward the observer.

Then occasionally, light rays scattered by dust and haze sometimes appear on “antisolar” point, (the horizon opposite to the setting sun). These rays, called anti-crepuscular rays, originate at the Sun, cross over the sky to the opposite horizon, and appear to converge toward the antisolar point.
Anyone else ever seen this before?

For both crepuscular and anti-crepsucular, the light rays are actually parallel, but appear to converge to the horizon due to “perspective,” the same visual effect that makes parallel railroad tracks appear to converge in the distance. One of the astronauts on the International Space Station actually captured crepuscular rays from orbit, showing how the rays are actually parallel. You can see that image and the description here.

Below are the two images separately. It was a beautiful evening and a thrilling sight.

Sunset crepuscular rays on the west horizon on June 9, 2012. Credit: Nancy Atkinson
Anti-crepuscular rays on the east horizons on June 9, 2012. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.

Why Is The Sunset Red?

Sunset

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Why is the sunset red? Awesome question. The most basic answer is that light is refracted by particles in the atmosphere and the red end of the spectrum is what is visible. To better understand that you have to have a basic understanding of how light behaves in the air, the atmosphere’s composition, the color of light, wavelengths, and Rayleigh scattering and here is all of the information that you need to understand those things.

The Earth’s atmosphere is one of the main factors in determining what color a sunset is. The atmosphere is made up mostly of gases with a few other molecules thrown in. Since it completely surrounds the Earth it affects what you see in every direction. The most common gasses in our atmosphere are nitrogen(78%) and oxygen(21%). The remaining single percent is made up of trace gasses, like argon, and water vapor and many small solid particles, like dust, soot and ashes, pollen, and salt from the oceans. There may be more water in the air after a rainstorm, or near the ocean. Volcanoes can put large amounts of dust particles high into the atmosphere. Pollution can add different gases or dust and soot.

Next, you have to look at light waves and the color of light. Light is an energy that travels in waves. Light is a wave of vibrating electric and magnetic fields and is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic waves travel through space at the speed of light(299,792 km/sec). The energy of the radiation depends on its wavelength and frequency. A wavelength is the distance between the tops of the waves. The frequency is the number of waves that pass by each second. The longer the wavelength of the light, the lower the frequency, and the less energy it contains. Visible light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes can see. Light from a light bulb or the Sun may look white, but it is actually a combination of many colors. Light can be split into its different colors with a prism. A rainbow is a natural prism effect. The colors of the spectrum blend into one another. The colors have different wavelengths, frequencies, and energies. Violet has the shortest wavelength meaning that it has the highest frequency and energy. Red has the longest wavelength and lowest frequency and energy.

In order to put it all together, we have to look at the action of light in the air of our planet. Light moves in a straight line until it is interfered with(gas molecule, dust, or anything else). What happens to that light depends on the wavelength of the light and size of the particle. Dust particles and water droplets are much larger than the wavelength of visible light, so it bounces off in different directions. The reflected light appears white because it still contains all of the same colors, but gas molecules are smaller than the wavelength of visible light. When light bumps into them it acts differently. After light hits a gas molecule some of it may get absorbed. Later, the molecule radiates the light in a different direction. The color that is radiated is the same color that was absorbed. The different colors of light are affected differently. All of the colors can be absorbed, but the higher frequencies (blues) are absorbed more often than the lower frequencies (reds). This process is called Rayleigh scattering.

Long story short,, the answer to ‘why is the sunset red?’ is: At sunset, light must travel farther through the atmosphere before it gets to you, so more of it is reflected and scattered and the sun appears dimmer. The color of the sun itself appears to change, first to orange and then to red because even more of the short wavelength blues and greens are now scattered and only the longer wavelengths(reds, oranges) are left to be seen.

We have written many articles about the sunset for Universe Today. Here’s an article about sunrise and sunset, and here are some sunset pictures.

If you’d like more info on the Sun, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Sun, and here’s a link to the SOHO mission homepage, which has the latest images from the Sun.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.

Reference:
NASA Space Place

What is a Sun Dog?

A sun dog is an atmospheric phenomenon where you can see additional bright patches in the sky on either side of the Sun. Sometimes you just see bright spots, and sometimes you can actually see an arc or even a halo around the Sun. These are all related to sun dogs, and have to do with very specific atmospheric conditions. If you’ve ever seen a sun dog, you were very lucky, and they only occur rarely.

Sun dogs occur because of sunlight refracting through ice crystals in the atmosphere. The crystals cause the sunlight to bend at a minimum angle of 22°. All of the crystals are refracting the Sun’s rays, but we only see the ones which are bent towards our eyes. Because this is the minimum, the light looks more concentrated starting at 22° away from the Sun; about 40 times the size of the Sun in the sky. At this 22° point you can get arcs, a halo, or just bright spots in the sky.

They can occur at any time of the year and from any place on Earth; although, they’re easiest to see when the Sun is lower on the horizon. As the Sun rises, the sun dog can actually drift away from the 22° point. Eventually the Sun gets so high that the sun dog disappears entirely.

There are no set colors with sun dogs. The light from the Sun is being refracted equally by the ice crystals and so we don’t see the colors broken up as we do with a rainbow.

We’ve written several articles about the Sun for Universe Today. Here’s an article about a ring around the Sun, and here’s an article about rings around the Moon.

If you’d like more info on sun dogs, check out this site.

We’ve recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.

Green Flash Sunset

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Have you ever heard of a green flash sunset? You might think it’s a myth, but this is a real phenomenon that you can see if the conditions are just right. If you’re watching the Sun dip down on the horizon you might see a green dot appear just above the Sun for just a second. That’s a green flash sunset, and if you saw one, you’re a very lucky person.

Green flashes can occur at sunrise or sunset, and to see one, you need to have an unobstructed view to the horizon. They occur because the light from the Sun is refracted – or bent – as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, following the curvature of the Earth. Higher frequency light (bluer light) is bent more than lower frequency light. This is happening all the time, but we’re seeing all the colors of the light spectrum at the same time. But when the Sun is right at the horizon, the redder hues of the color spectrum are blocked by the horizon of the Earth, while the higher frequency wavelengths are still following the curve of the Earth. While the redder light is blocked, the green and blue light is still visible, so we see the green flash.

There are actually a few different kinds of green flashes that can occur. The most common example is an inferior-mirage flash, where a dot of green light appears on top of the Sun just as it’s gone below the horizon. But you can also get a situation where a portion of the Sun’s upper edge turns slightly green, or even a green beam of light appears above the Sun.

We’ve written a few articles about sunsets for Universe Today. Here’s an article about green flashes, and here are some cool pictures of sunsets seen from other worlds.

If you’d like more info on green flashes, check out this introduction to green flashes.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.