Archive for September 23, 2021

09/23/2021 – Ephemeris – The Earth’s axial tilt gives us our seasons

September 23, 2021 Comments off

This is Bob Moler with Ephemeris for Thursday, September 23rd. Today the Sun will be up for 12 hours and 6 minutes, setting at 7:37, and it will rise tomorrow at 7:32. The Moon, 3 days past full, will rise at 9:03 this evening.

The Earth has an axial tilt* of about 23 and a half degrees, which gives us our seasons. Because the Earth rotates on its axis, it has a slight equatorial bulge. Earth’s polar diameter is 7,900 miles (12,714 kilometers) while its equatorial diameter is 7,926 miles (12,756 kilometers), a difference of 26 miles (42 kilometers). The gravitational tug on that equatorial bulge by the Moon and Sun actually keeps the tilt stable, but does cause the Earth’s axis to precess like a top slowing down. It’s why Polaris will no longer be our North Pole star in centuries to come, just as it wasn’t in centuries past. It’s also why the constellations of the zodiac no longer align with the astrological signs of Ptolemy’s zodiac of the second century AD.

The astronomical event times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan (EDT, UT-4 hours). They may be different for your location.

* Astronomers call axial tilt “obliquity” or “obliquity of the ecliptic”.


The force causing precession

The Moon and Sun’s gravitational force act on the Earth’s equatorial bulge, attempting to cause the Earth to straighten up and fly right. Because the Earth is spinning, it acts like a gyroscope and the torque to straighten it up causes it to be applied 90 degrees away in the direction of the rotation causing the procession. Image credit: Open Course: Astronomy.

Precesssion of a spinning top

Precession of a spinning top: the spin axis traces the surface of a cone. The axis, in the case of the Earth, traces a circle of radius 23.5 degrees on the sky. Credit NASA.

Precesion animation

The 25,700-year cycle of precession traced on the sky as seen from near the Earth. The current North Pole star is Polaris (top). In about 8,000 years it will be the bright star Deneb (left), and in about 12,000 years, Vega (left center). The Earth’s rotation is not depicted to scale – in this span of time, it would actually rotate over 9 million times. Credit image: Tfr000, caption: Wikipedia.