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Physics LibreTexts

4: Earth, Moon, and Sky

If Earth’s orbit is nearly a perfect circle (as we saw in earlier chapters), why is it hotter in summer and colder in winter in many places around the globe? And why are the seasons in Australia or Peru the opposite of those in the United States or Europe?

The story is told that Galileo, as he left the Hall of the Inquisition following his retraction of the doctrine that Earth rotates and revolves about the Sun, said under his breath, “But nevertheless it moves.” Historians are not sure whether the story is true, but certainly Galileo knew that Earth was in motion, whatever church authorities said.

It is the motions of Earth that produce the seasons and give us our measures of time and date. The Moon’s motions around us provide the concept of the month and the cycle of lunar phases. In this chapter we examine some of the basic phenomena of our everyday world in their astronomical context.

  • 4.1: Earth and Sky
    The terrestrial system of latitude and longitude makes use of the great circles called meridians. Longitude is arbitrarily set to 0° at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England. An analogous celestial coordinate system is called right ascension (RA) and declination, with 0° of declination starting at the vernal equinox. These coordinate systems help us locate any object on the celestial sphere. The Foucault pendulum is a way to demonstrate that Earth is turning.
  • 4.2: The Seasons
    The familiar cycle of the seasons results from the 23.5° tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation. At the summer solstice, the Sun is higher in the sky and its rays strike Earth more directly. The Sun is in the sky for more than half of the day and can heat Earth longer. At the winter solstice, the Sun is low in the sky and its rays come in at more of an angle; in addition, it is up for fewer than 12 hours, so those rays have less time to heat.
  • 4.3: Keeping Time
    The basic unit of astronomical time is the day—either the solar day (reckoned by the Sun) or the sidereal day (reckoned by the stars). Apparent solar time is based on the position of the Sun in the sky, and mean solar time is based on the average value of a solar day during the year. By international agreement, we define 24 time zones around the world, each with its own standard time. The convention of the International Date Line is necessary to reconcile times on different parts of Earth.
  • 4.4: The Calendar
    The fundamental problem of the calendar is to reconcile the incommensurable lengths of the day, month, and year. Most modern calendars, beginning with the Roman (Julian) calendar of the first century BCE, neglect the problem of the month and concentrate on achieving the correct number of days in a year by using such conventions as the leap year. Today, most of the world has adopted the Gregorian calendar established in 1582 while finding ways to coexist with lunar calendars’ system of months.
  • 4.5: Phases and Motions of the Moon
    The Moon’s monthly cycle of phases results from the changing angle of its illumination by the Sun. The full moon is visible in the sky only during the night; other phases are visible during the day as well. Because its period of revolution is the same as its period of rotation, the Moon always keeps the same face toward Earth.
  • 4.6: Ocean Tides and the Moon
    The twice-daily ocean tides are primarily the result of the Moon’s differential force on the material of Earth’s crust and ocean. These tidal forces cause ocean water to flow into two tidal bulges on opposite sides of Earth; each day, Earth rotates through these bulges. Actual ocean tides are complicated by the additional effects of the Sun and by the shape of the coasts and ocean basins.
  • 4.7: Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    The Sun and Moon have nearly the same angular size (about 1/2°). A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon moves between the Sun and Earth, casting its shadow on a part of Earth’s surface. If the eclipse is total, the light from the bright disk of the Sun is completely blocked, and the solar atmosphere (the corona) comes into view. Solar eclipses take place rarely in any one location, but they are among the most spectacular sights in nature. A lunar eclipse takes place when the Moon moves into Earth’

Thumbnails: As captured with a fish-eye lens aboard the Atlantis Space Shuttle on December 9, 1993, Earth hangs above the Hubble Space Telescope as it is repaired. The reddish continent is Australia, its size and shape distorted by the special lens. Because the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are opposite those in the Northern Hemisphere, it is summer in Australia on this December day. (credit: modification of work by NASA)