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       Earth's Night Sky

Up to about 3,000 stars are visible at a time from Earth with the unaided eye, far away from city lights, on a clear night. A view at night may also show several planets and perhaps a comet or a meteor shower. Increasingly, human-made light pollution is making the sky less dark, limiting the number of visible astronomical objects. During the daytime the Sun shines brightly. The Moon and bright planets are sometimes visible early or late in the day but are rarely seen at midday.

TOP Earth's Relative Motion

Earth moves in two basic ways: It turns in place, and it revolves around the Sun. Earth turns around its axis, an imaginary line that runs down its center through its North and South poles. The Moon also revolves around Earth. All of these motions produce day and night, the seasons, the phases of the Moon, and solar and lunar eclipses.

TOP Night, Day, and Seasons

Earth is about 12,000 km (about 7,000 mi) in diameter. As it revolves, or moves in a circle, around the Sun, Earth spins on its axis. This spinning movement is called rotation. Earth's axis is tilted 23.5° with respect to the plane of its orbit. Each time Earth rotates on its axis, it goes through one day, a cycle of light and dark. Humans artificially divide the day into 24 hours and then divide the hours into 60 minutes and the minutes into 60 seconds.

Earth revolves around the Sun once every year, or 365.25 days (most people use a 365-day calendar and take care of the extra 0.25 day by adding a day to the calendar every four years, creating a leap year). The orbit of Earth is almost, but not quite, a circle, so Earth is sometimes a little closer to the Sun than at other times. If Earth were upright as it revolved around the Sun, each point on Earth would have exactly 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark each day. Because Earth is tilted, however, the northern hemisphere sometimes points toward the Sun and sometimes points away from the Sun. This tilt is responsible for the seasons. When the northern hemisphere points toward the Sun, the northernmost regions of Earth see the Sun 24 hours a day. The whole northern hemisphere gets more sunlight and gets it at a more direct angle than the southern hemisphere does during this period, which lasts for half of the year. The second half of this period, when the northern hemisphere points most directly at the Sun, is the northern hemisphere's summer, which corresponds to winter in the southern hemisphere. During the other half of the year, the southern hemisphere points more directly toward the Sun, so it is spring and summer in the southern hemisphere and fall and winter in the northern hemisphere.

TOP Phases of the Moon

One revolution of the Moon around Earth takes a little over 27 days 7 hours. The Moon rotates on its axis in this same period of time, so the same face of the Moon is always presented to Earth. Over a period a little longer than 29 days 12 hours, the Moon goes through a series of phases, in which the amount of the lighted half of the Moon we see from Earth changes. These phases are caused by the changing angle of sunlight hitting the Moon. (The period of phases is longer than the period of revolution of the Moon, because the motion of Earth around the Sun changes the angle at which the Sun's light hits the Moon from night to night.)

The Moon's orbit around Earth is tilted 5° from the plane of Earth's orbit. Because of this tilt, when the Moon is at the point in its orbit when it is between Earth and the Sun, the Moon is usually a little above or below the Sun. At that time, the Sun lights the side of the Moon facing away from Earth, and the side of the Moon facing toward Earth is dark. This point in the Moon's orbit corresponds to a phase of the Moon called the new moon. A quarter moon occurs when the Moon is at right angles to the line formed by the Sun and Earth. The Sun lights the side of the Moon closest to it, and half of that side is visible from Earth, forming a bright half-circle. When the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, the face of the Moon visible from Earth is lit, showing the full moon in the sky.

TOP Ultraviolet Astronomy

Ultraviolet light has wavelengths longer than X rays, but shorter than visible light. Ultraviolet telescopes are similar to visible-light telescopes in the way they gather light, but the atmosphere blocks most ultraviolet radiation. Most ultraviolet observations, therefore, must also take place in space. Most of the instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are sensitive to ultraviolet radiation (see Ultraviolet Astronomy). Humans cannot see ultraviolet radiation, but astronomers can create visual images from ultraviolet light by assigning particular colors or shades to different intensities of radiation.

TOP Eclipses

Because of the tilt of the Moon's orbit, the Moon usually passes above or below the Sun at new moon and above or below Earth's shadow at full moon. Sometimes, though, the full moon or new moon crosses the plane of Earth's orbit. By a coincidence of nature, even though the Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun, it is also about 400 times closer to Earth than the Sun is, so the Moon and Sun look almost exactly the same size from Earth. If the Moon lines up with the Sun and Earth at new moon (when the Moon is between Earth and the Sun), it blocks the Sun's light from Earth, creating a solar eclipse. If the Moon lines up with Earth and the Sun at the full moon (when Earth is between the Moon and the Sun), Earth's shadow covers the Moon, making a lunar eclipse.

A total solar eclipse is visible from only a small region of Earth. During a solar eclipse, the complete shadow of the Moon that falls on Earth is only about 160 km (about 100 mi) wide. As Earth, the Sun, and the Moon move, however, the Moon's shadow sweeps out a path up to 16,000 km (10,000 mi) long. The total eclipse can only be seen from within this path. A total solar eclipse occurs about every 18 months. Off to the sides of the path of a total eclipse, a partial eclipse, in which the Sun is only partly covered, is visible. Partial eclipses are much less dramatic than total eclipses. The Moon's orbit around Earth is slightly elliptical, or egg-shaped. The distance between Earth and the Moon varies slightly as the Moon orbits Earth. When the Moon is farther from Earth than usual, it appears smaller and may not cover the entire Sun during an eclipse. A ring, or annulus, of sunlight remains visible, making an annular eclipse. An annular solar eclipse also occurs about every 18 months. Additional partial solar eclipses are also visible from Earth in between.

At a lunar eclipse, the Moon is actually in Earth's shadow. When the Moon is completely in the shadow, the total lunar eclipse is visible from everywhere on the half of Earth from which the Moon is visible at that time. As a result, more people see total lunar eclipses than see total solar eclipses.

TOP Meteors

In an open place on a clear dark night, streaks of light may appear in a random part of the sky about once every 10 minutes. These streaks are meteors—bits of rock—burning up in Earth's atmosphere. The bits of rock are called meteoroids, and when these bits survive Earth's atmosphere intact and land on Earth, they are known as meteorites.

Every month or so, Earth passes through the orbit of a comet. Dust from the comet remains in the comet's orbit. When Earth passes through the band of dust, the dust and bits of rock burn up in the atmosphere, creating a meteor shower. Many more meteors are visible during a meteor shower than on an ordinary night. The most observed meteor shower is the Perseid shower (see Perseids), which occurs each year on August 11th or 12th.

TOP Mapping the Sky

Humans have picked out landmarks in the sky and mapped the heavens for thousands of years. Maps of the sky helped people navigate, measure time, and track celestial events. Now astronomers methodically map the sky to produce a universal format for the addresses of stars, galaxies, and other objects of interest.

TOP The Constellations

Some of the stars in the sky are brighter and more noticeable than others are, and some of these bright stars appear to the eye to be grouped together. Ancient civilizations imagined that groups of stars represented figures in the sky. The oldest known representations of these groups of stars, called constellations, are from ancient Sumer (now Iraq) from about 4000 BC. The constellations recorded by ancient Greeks and Chinese resemble the Sumerian constellations. The northern hemisphere constellations that astronomers recognize today are based on the Greek constellations. Explorers and astronomers developed and recorded the official constellations of the southern hemisphere in the 16th and 17th centuries. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially recognizes 88 constellations. The IAU defined the boundaries of each constellation, so the 88 constellations divide the sky without overlapping.

A familiar group of stars in the northern hemisphere is called the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper is actually part of an official constellation—Ursa Major, or the Great Bear. Groups of stars that are not official constellations, such as the Big Dipper, are called asterisms. While the stars in the Big Dipper appear in approximately the same part of the sky, they vary greatly in their distance from Earth. This is true for the stars in all constellations or asterisms—the stars making up the group do not really occur close to each other in space; they merely appear together as seen from Earth. The patterns of the constellations are figments of humans' imagination, and different artists may connect the stars of a constellation in different ways, even when illustrating the same myth.

TOP Coordinate Systems

Astronomers use coordinate systems to label the positions of objects in the sky, just as geographers use longitude and latitude to label the positions of objects on Earth. Astronomers use several different coordinate systems. The two most widely used are the altazimuth system and the equatorial system. The altazimuth system gives an object's coordinates with respect to the sky visible above the observer. The equatorial coordinate system designates an object's location with respect to Earth's entire night sky, or the celestial sphere.

TOP Altazimuth System

One of the ways astronomers give the position of a celestial object is by specifying its altitude and its azimuth. This coordinate system is called the altazimuth system. The altitude of an object is equal to its angle, in degrees, above the horizon. An object at the horizon would have an altitude of 0°, and an object directly overhead would have an altitude of 90°. The azimuth of an object is equal to its angle in the horizontal direction, with north at 0°, east at 90°, south at 180°, and west at 270°. For example, if an astronomer were looking for an object at 23° altitude and 87° azimuth, the astronomer would know to look fairly low in the sky and almost directly east.

As Earth rotates, astronomical objects appear to rise and set, so their altitudes and azimuths are constantly changing. An object's altitude and azimuth also vary according to an observer's location on Earth. Therefore, astronomers almost never use altazimuth coordinates to record an object's position. Instead, astronomers with altazimuth telescopes translate coordinates from equatorial coordinates to find an object. Telescopes that use an altazimuth mounting system may be simple to set up, but they require many calculated movements to keep them pointed at an object as it moves across the sky. These telescopes fell out of use with the development of the equatorial coordinate and mounting system in the early 1800s. However, computers have made the return to popularity possible for altazimuth systems. Altazimuth mounting systems are simple and inexpensive, and—with computers to do the required calculations and control the motor that moves the telescope—they are practical.

TOP Equatorial System

The equatorial coordinate system is a coordinate system fixed on the sky. In this system, a star keeps the same coordinates no matter what the time is or where the observer is located. The equatorial coordinate system is based on the celestial sphere. The celestial sphere is a giant imaginary globe surrounding Earth. This sphere has north and south celestial poles directly above Earth's North and South poles. It has a celestial equator, directly above Earth's equator. Another important part of the celestial sphere is the line that marks the movement of the Sun with respect to the stars throughout the year. This path is called the ecliptic. Because Earth is tilted with respect to its orbit around the Sun, the ecliptic is not the same as the celestial equator. The ecliptic is tilted 23.5° to the celestial equator and crosses the celestial equator at two points on opposite sides of the celestial sphere. The crossing points are called the vernal (or spring) equinox and the autumnal equinox. The vernal equinox and autumnal equinox mark the beginning of spring and fall, respectively. The points at which the ecliptic and celestial equator are farthest apart are called the summer solstice and the winter solstice, which mark the beginning of summer and winter, respectively.

As Earth rotates on its axis each day, the stars and other distant astronomical objects appear to rise in the eastern part of the sky and set in the west. They seem to travel in circles around Earth's North or South poles. In the equatorial coordinate system, the celestial sphere turns with the stars (but this movement is really caused by the rotation of Earth). The celestial sphere makes one complete rotation every 23 hours 56 minutes, which is four minutes shorter than a day measured by the movement of the Sun. A complete rotation of the celestial sphere is called a sidereal day. Because the sidereal day is slightly shorter than a solar day, the stars that an observer sees from any location on Earth change slightly from night to night. The difference between a sidereal day and a solar day occurs because of Earth's motion around the Sun.

The equivalent of longitude on the celestial sphere is called right ascension and the equivalent of latitude is declination. Specifying the right ascension of a star is equivalent to measuring the east-west distance from a line called the prime meridian that runs through Greenwich, England, for a place on Earth. Right ascension starts at the vernal equinox. Longitude on Earth is given in degrees, but right ascension is given in units of time—hours, minutes, and seconds. This is because the celestial equator is divided into 24 equal parts—each called an hour of right ascension instead of 15°. Each hour is made up of 60 minutes, each of which is equal to 60 seconds. Measuring right ascension in units of time makes determining when will be the best time for observing an object easier for astronomers. A particular line of right ascension will be at its highest point in the sky above a particular place on Earth four minutes earlier each day, so keeping track of the movement of the celestial sphere with an ordinary clock would be complicated. Astronomers have special clocks that keep sidereal time (24 sidereal hours are equal to 23 hours 56 minutes of familiar solar time). Astronomers compare the current sidereal time to the right ascension of the object they wish to view. The object will be highest in the sky when the sidereal time equals the right ascension of the object.

The direction perpendicular to right ascension—and the equivalent to latitude on Earth—is declination. Declination is measured in degrees. These degrees are divided into arcminutes and arcseconds. One arcminute is equal to 1/60 of a degree, and one arcsecond is equal to 1/60 of an arcminute, or 1/360 of a degree. The celestial equator is at declination 0°, the north celestial pole is at declination 90°, and the south celestial pole has a declination of –90°. Each star has a right ascension and a declination that mark its position in the sky. The brightest star, Sirius, for example, has right ascension 6 hours 45 minutes (abbreviated as 6h 45m) and declination -16 degrees 43 arcminutes (written –16° 43').

Stars are so far away from Earth that the main star motion we see results from Earth's rotation. Stars do move in space, however, and these proper motions slightly change the coordinates of the nearest stars over time. The effects of the Sun and the Moon on Earth also cause slight changes in Earth's axis of rotation. These changes, called precession, cause a slow drift in right ascension and declination. To account for precession, astronomers redefine the celestial coordinates every 50 years or so.

Contributed By: Jay M. Pasachoff, A.B., A.M., Ph.D.
Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Hopkins Observatory, Williams College. Author of Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe, 6th ed.; Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, 4th ed.; Fire in the Sky; and Nearest Star: The Exciting Science of Our Sun

"Astronomy," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2002 © 1997-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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