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Published by: Siow Shung Churn on Jul 31, 2012
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The Earth’s axial rotation and orbital motion, along with earthquakes and

friction between the ocean waters and the ocean floor, all complicate the

keeping of time.

Solar Time

Clocks were uncommon during the time of Galileo. He measured time in

some of his experiments by using his pulse in place of a clock. In others he

measured the collected volume of water from a flowing source as a measure of

time. People’s daily activities were, and largely continue to be, in accord with

the apparent motion of the Sun. Apparent noon is marked by the presence

of the Sun on the local meridian, and an apparent day defined as the time

between successive apparent noons. Time kept in this way is called Apparent

Solar Time or Local Apparent Time.

Ongoing, precise astronomical observations showed that days are not

equal in length, that is, the time between successive meridian passages of

the Sun changes slightly and smoothly throughout the year. This led to the


definition of a fictitious Mean Sun that always produces days of exactly 24

hours or 86,400 seconds, so we could keep Mean Solar Time, or civil time,

with a civil clock. This is the type of clock with which we are all famil-

iar. The version of civil time kept by the Bureau International des Poids et

Mesures and the Time Service Department of the U. S. Naval Observatory

is called Universal Time, or UT. Please read about the BIPM at


UT at


and the Time Service Department at,


The difference between Mean Solar Time and Apparent Solar Time is

called the Equation of Time, and a graphical plot of the Equation of Time

is called an analemma. An analemma looks like a thin figure eight, and is

often printed on globes. Please read about time at


and view an amazing illustration of an analemma at


Sidereal Time

It also became apparent that the Sun moves relative to the stars, making a

complete circuit in one year. The result is that we see different constellations

during different times of the year, and since Newton’s time we have taken

the “fixed stars” to provide an inertial frame of reference. (In fact it is not

inertial because of rotation of the Galaxy. None the less, the apparently fixed

stars still provide a very useful reference frame called the Local Standard of

Rest, or LSR, which could be used for navigation to the nearest stars.) Thus,

it became possible to define the sidereal day as successive meridian passages

of a star (from the Latin sidus or sider, meaning star), in addition to the

definition of the solar day as successive meridian passages of the Sun. This

led to the distinction between a solar day and a sidereal day, with the sidereal

day being shorter by about four minutes, so that there are 366 sidereal days



in a year. Marking the sidereal day required Sidereal Time and a sidereal

clock running slightly faster than a civil clock.

Successful navigation required an agreed upon Prime Meridian for mea-

suring angles and time - for a while each country had its own - and a similar

reference point on the sky - the Vernal Equinox or First Point of Aries. An-

gles on the Celestial Sphere and on the Earth could be measured not only

in degrees and radians, but also in time. Similarly, time could be measured

as an angle. Thus, we use hours, minutes, and seconds, such that 360 de-

grees equal 24 hours, so 1 hour equals 15 degrees, 1 minute of time equals 15

minutes of arc, and 1 second of time equals 15 seconds of arc. Local sidereal

time is zero hours, or 0h



, when the First Point of Aries is on the

local meridian, and the Local Sidereal Time (LST) advances as the amount

of time since the First Point was on the meridian. Please read about Sidereal

Time at


Mathematically we have

θ = θg + λE.


Here the quantity θ is the angle from the stationary ˆ

I axis to the meridian of

the object being observed, and θg is the angle between ˆ

I and Greenwich - the

Greenwich sidereal time. The quantity λE is longitude measured eastward

from Greenwich. The Greenwich sidereal time advances at the sidereal rate,

which is 2π radians in 24 sidereal hours or 23h



09054 = 86164.09054

seconds of solar time. This rate is

ωE = 1.0027379093 rev day−1

= 7.292115856×10−5

rad s−1

and we can write

θ = θg0 + ωE(tt0) + λE,


where ωE is the angular speed of the Earth, θgo is the sidereal time at Green-

wich at some temporal reference, t0, usually 0h

Universal Time on January 1

of the year in question, and t is a general time running at the sidereal rate.

This provides the time dependence of θ that we need to convert between G-E

and T-H coordinates.

Example 5 An Example of How to Calculate Local Sidereal Time

What was the LST at a station on the equator at 57.296 degrees west

longitude at 06:00 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) on 2 January, 1970? This


example is adapted from one on page 106 of the text. The year was chosen

by the authors because the book was written in about 1970.

Page 104 of the text contains data from the American Ephemeris and

Nautical Almanac for 1970. It shows that at 00:00 hours on 1 January 1970

the Greenwich Sidereal Time (GST) was 6h



061 or 1.74933340 radians.

This is θg0 for 1970. The top of page 104 contains data on how to calculate

day numbers for any given year. 1 January of each year is counted as day 0

of that year, with the day changing from 0 to 1 at the completion of the day.

Thus, 2 January is day 1. At 06:00 hours the fraction 6.00/24.00 = 0.25 of a

day has passed, so the time of observation at the station is 1.25 days. This

provides us with the term tt0 in units of days. The station is at 57.296

west longitude, which is 1.000 radian west. Thus, λE =−1.000. The LST at

the station is then

θ = θg0 + ωE(tt0) + λE,


where we choose to measure all angles in radians. Thus

θ = 1.74933340 + 1.0027379093×2π×1.25−1.000 = 8.62481852. (2.88)

In this case tt0 is greater than one day, so θ is greater than 2π radians. It

is advantageous, and in many cases astronomically necessary, to subtract the

whole number of days and specify the sidereal time as the remainder. This


θ = 8.62481852−6.28318531 = 2.34163322.


This brings up the question of how many decimal places are necessary to

keep in a calculation like this. There are 24×60×60 = 86400 seconds in a

day, so one second is 0.00001156 of a day. To keep accuracy to one second

we will need at least 5 decimal places. To calculate the time, position, and

rendezvous of satellites or missile interceptors it may be necessary to keep

three or four more decimal places.

Dynamical Time

The study of dynamics requires Dynamical Time, which marches forward

smoothly at one second per second and one day per day, with each second

and each day of equal duration. This seems overly simple, but it is not. Tidal

friction and earthquakes can cause the Earth’s rotation to slow, requiring the

occasional introduction of a leap second. Leap years have leap days. Calen-

dars are reformed. These cannot cause the celestial bodies to leap forward



or backward arbitrarily and instantaneously, hence the need for smoothly

marching Dynamical Time.

A uniform march of days is tracked using Julian days and the Julian

date. As I write on 2007 July 19 (the method preferred by the International

Astronomical Union for writing calendar dates) it is Julian day 2454301,

which specifies the day as a whole number, and Julian date 2454301.40444,

which specifies the time of day as well. Please read about Julian dates at


and systems of time, including Dynamical Time, at


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