Today, September 14, 2011, is the vernal equinox for the northern hemisphere of Mars!
If you want to be technical, it’s the time when the axis of Martian rotation is perpendicular to the direction of the Sun, and the northern hemisphere is headed into summer (making it the autumnal equinox for the southern hemisphere). When this happens here on Earth, it’s called the first day of spring (here in the US at least, in other countries it’s considered the middle of the season — a tradition with which I agree).
Mars, like Earth, is tilted with respect to its orbit around the Sun; Earth is canted at an angle of roughly 23°, while Mars is at 25°. That’s why we (and Mars) have seasons! Over the course of the year, the angle of sunlight hitting the surface of the planet changes, heating it more efficiently in the summer and less in the winter. Boom! Seasons.
On Earth, that’s most dramatically seen as polar ice shrinks and grows over the year. Same with Mars! The picture above is from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, and shows the northern polar cap in May 2010, during the last summer. The north pole of Mars is icy, but it’s actually two kinds of ice: water, and frozen carbon dioxide. CO2 turns directly from a solid into a gas (a process called sublimation), and does so at much lower temperature than water ice melts. This means the CO2 goes away first as temperatures rise in the northern hemisphere, leaving the water ice behind. In that picture, the ice is essentially all water.
In other words: the north pole of Mars is sublime*.
Where does the CO2 go? Into the atmosphere! So much of it adds to the air there that the atmospheric pressure on the planet increases measurably, by about 30%. That much extra carbon dioxide adds a small but significant greenhouse effect to the planet as well, warming the surface. Estimates vary, but I’ve seen quotes of a few degrees Celsius for the effect.
The change of seasons also kicks up winds on Mars, and that can cause everything from dust devils which leave incredibly beautiful scrollwork on the surface to planet-wide dust storms.
I’ll note that the year on Mars is about twice the length of an Earth year, so all the seasons are about twice as long as well. May 2010 is when summer started on Mars (in the northern hemisphere), and here we are 17 months later with the start of spring. The Planetary Society has a page listing the next few seasonal dates on Mars if you’re curious.
So anyway, happy first day of spring, Martians! Don’t forget to try to stand up malagor eggs today.
Image credits: Earth/Mars tilts: from Calvin J. Hamilton’s fantastic Solar views website; Mars polar cap: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum.)
* Hahahahahaha! Man, that’s funny. Also, <McBain>ice to see you.</McBain>
[Update: My apologies: due to a cut-and-paste error, I had mistakenly listed the perihelion distance as the average distance of the Earth to the Sun (147 versus 149 million km). To avoid confusion, I simply replaced the error with the correct value. The rest of the post is correct since this wasn't a math error but a typographical one, and I used the right value when doing my calculations below.]
Since last July, the Earth has been falling ever closer to the Sun. Every moment since then, our planet has edged closer to the nearest star in the Universe, approaching it at over 1100 kilometers per hour, 27,500 km/day, 800,000 km every month.
But don’t panic! We do this every year. And that part of it ends today anyway.
The Earth’s orbit around the Sun is not a perfect circle. It’s actually an ellipse, so sometimes we’re closer to the Sun, and sometimes farther away. Various factors change the exact date and time every year — you can get the numbers at the Naval Observatory site — but aphelion (when we’re farthest from the Sun) happens in July, and perihelion (when we’re closest) in January.
And we’re at perihelion now! Today, January 3, 2011, around 19:00 GMT (2:00 p.m. Eastern US time), the Earth reaches perihelion. At that time, we’ll be about 147,099,587 kilometers (91,245,873 miles) from the Sun. To give you an idea of how far that is, a jet traveling at a cruising speed of 800 km/hr would take over 20 years to reach the Sun.
Of course, since today is when we’re closest to the Sun this year, every day for the next six months after we’ll be a bit farther away. That reaches its peak when we’re at aphelion this year on July 4th, when we’ll be 152,096,155 km (94,507,988 miles) from the Sun.
Not that you’d notice without a telescope, but that means the Sun is slightly bigger in the sky today than it is in July. The difference is only about 3%, which would take a telescope to notice. Frequent BA Blog astrophotograph contributor Anthony Ayiomamitis took these images of the Sun at perihelion and aphelion in 2005:
This may seem a bit odd if you’re not used to the physics of orbital motion, but you can think of the Earth as moving around the Sun with two velocities: one sideways as it sweeps around its orbit, the other (much smaller) toward and away from the Sun over the course of a year. The two add together to give us our elliptical orbit. The sideways (what astronomers call tangential) velocity is about 30 kilometers (18 miles) per second, which is incredibly fast. But then, we do travel an orbit that’s nearly a billion kilometers in circumference every year!
I don’t usually repost blog entries, because it’s lazy. But it’s 2.5 hours before New Years as I sit here, and you know what? Tonight I’m lazy (though not so lazy to make a few edits to bring the post up to date). Plus, this post was last seen three years ago, on December 31, 2007, and I have a lot of new readers since then so it’s new to them. Also? This post is one my favorites I’ve ever written. So enjoy it, but fair warning: if you’re hungover I can almost guarantee this’ll make it worse.
Yay! It’s a new year!
But what does that mean, exactly?
The year, of course, is the time it takes for the Earth to orbit the Sun, right? Well, not exactly. It depends on what you mean by "year", and how you measure it. This takes a wee bit of explaining, so while the antacid is dissolving in your stomach to remedy last night’s excesses, sit back and let me tell you the tale of the year.
First, I will ignore a few things. For example, time zones. These were invented by a sadistic watchmaker, who only wanted to keep people in thrall of his devious plans. So for now, let’s just ignore them, and assume that for these purposes you spend a whole year (whatever length of time that turns out to be) planted in one spot.
However, I will not ignore the rotation of the Earth. That turns (haha) out to be important.
Let’s take a look at the Earth from a distance. From our imaginary point in space, we look down and see the Earth and the Sun. The Earth is moving, orbiting the Sun. Of course it is, you think to yourself. But how do you measure that? For something to be moving, it has to be moving relative to something else. What can we use as a yardstick against which to measure the Earth’s motion?
Well, we might notice as we float in space that we are surrounded by zillions of pretty stars. We can use them! So we mark the position of the Earth and Sun using the stars as benchmarks, and then watch and wait. Some time later, the Earth has moved in a big circle and is back to where it started in reference to those stars. That’s called a "sidereal year" (sidus is the Latin word for star). How long did that take?
Let’s say we used a stopwatch to measure the elapsed time. We’ll see that it took the Earth 31,558,149 seconds (some people like to approximate that as pi x 10 million (31,415,926) seconds, which is an easy way to be pretty close). But how many days is that?