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Perihelion 2016

January 1, 2016 2 comments

At 2249 GMT on 2 January 2016 the Earth reaches perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun this year.

If that sounds confusing to you, and has you wondering why it’s so cold given that the Earth is at its closest to the Sun, then this belies (a) a northern-hemisphere-centric attitude (in the Southern Hemisphere it’s summer right now), and (b) a misunderstanding of what causes the seasons.

The Earth orbits the sun in a nearly circular orbit called an ellipse. The degree by which an orbit differs from a perfect circle is called the eccentricity, e. If e = 0 then the orbit is circular; if e = 1 then the orbit is parabolic, and therefore not gravitationally bound to the Sun. 

The Earth’s orbital eccentricity is 0.0167, meaning that it is very nearly circular, with the short axis of the ellipse being around 96% the length of the long axis. 
Thus, during perihelion Earth is 0.983AU from the Sun, while during aphelion (its furthest distance from the Sun, occurring this year on 4 July) Earth is 1.017AU from the Sun. (1AU = 1 astronomical unit = the average distance between the Earth and the Sun = 150 million km).

The seasons on Earth have really nothing to do with how close the Earth is to the Sun at different times of year. Indeed how could they, given that the difference in distance between closest and furthest approach is only a few per cent? The seasonal differences we experience are of course caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which is inclined by 23.5 degrees from the vertical.

This tilt means that, as Earth orbits the Sun, for six months of the year one hemisphere tips towards the Sun, so that it experiences longer days than nights, becoming most pronounced at midsummer, at which point the Sun reaches its highest in the sky at noon. Simultaneously the other hemisphere tips away from the Sun, and experiences shorter days than nights, becoming most pronounced at midwinter, on which day the Sun is at its lowest noontime altitude.

The further you are from the equator the more pronounced the seasonal effects. In fact equatorial countries don’t experience seasonal variations, while the poles experience extremes with six-month-long winters and summers. The timing of perihelion and aphelion relative to our seasons is entirely random. The fact the southern hemisphere midsummer (21 Dec) almost coincides with perihelion (2 Jan) is simply that; a coincidence. Given that fact, there is no reason to be surprised that perihelion occurs so close to northern hemisphere midwinter: it has to happen some time and it’s a coincidence that it happens to occur within two weeks of midwinter / midsummer.

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Summer Solstice 2013

The northern hemisphere summer solstice occurs today, 21 June 2013 at 0504 UT (which is actually 0604 BST in the UK).

But surely the summer solstice is just the longest day. How can it “occur” at a specific instant?

That’s because we astronomers define the summer solstice as the instant when the Sun gets to its furthest north above the celestial equator. Or to put it another way, the instant when the north pole of the Earth is tilted towards the Sun as far as it can.

And this happens at exactly 0504 UT on 21 June 2013.

It’s important to remember though that while we are in the midst of summer, the southern hemisphere are experiencing their winter solstice, and their shortest day.

And how much longer is our “longest day”? In Glasgow, my home town, the Sun will be above the horizon for 17h35m12s today (21 June), a full one second longer than yesterday, and six seconds longer than tomorrow.

The Return of Darkness

August 21, 2012 2 comments

With summer coming to an end in the British Isles we start the return to the dark skies of autumn and winter. Depending on where you are in the country you will have been without truly dark skies for many weeks, maybe even months, as summer evening twilight lasts throughout the night during the summer.

This all-night-long twilight is almost gone throughout the UK, indeed anywhere on the mainland UK can see astronomically dark skies around 1am at the moment. Only the furthest north outpost of the British Isles still doesn’t have that opportunity.

On the island of Unst, the furthest north of the Shetland islands, lies the UK’s furthest-north town, Skaw, at 60°49’N and 00°47’W. This tiny village will see astronomical darkness return at 0043 on 24 August, lasting only 46 minutes until at 0129 the sun’s light begins to creep into the sky again.

Midsummer sunset (at 2241) from Unst. Image Credit Brydon Thomason, Shetland Nature Ltd.

The last time that astronomical darkness was seen at Skaw was on 18 April, over four months ago! Indeed this settlement is so far north that between around 13 and 29 June each year they never get out of civil twilight, meaning that the sky’s bright all night long!

Compare this with the furthest south town in the British Isles, Saint Clement in Jersey, in the Channel Islands. Astronomical darkness returned to Saint Clement on 4 July this year, having been absent since 8 June; only four weeks without true darkness!

Such is the effect of differences in latitude that these two settlements, separated by 1299 km, have such hugely different seasonal swings between summer and winter.

 

 

Summer Solstice 2012

The northern hemisphere summer solstice occurs today, 20 June 2012 at 2309 UT (which is actually tomorrow in the UK, 21 June 2012 at 0009 BST).

But surely the summer solstice is just the longest day. How can it “occur” at a specific instant?

That’s because we astronomers define the summer solstice as the instant when the Sun gets to its furthest north above the celestial equator. Or to put it another way, the instant when the north pole of the Earth is tilted towards the Sun as far as it can.

And this happens at exactly 2309 UT on 20 June 2012.

It’s important to remember though that while we are in the midst of summer, the southern hemisphere are experiencing their winter solstice, and their shortest day.

And how much longer is our “longest day”? In Glasgow, my home town, the Sun will be above the horizon for 17h35m13s today and tomorrow (20 and 21 June), a full seven seconds longer than yesterday, and eight seconds longer than 22 June.

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