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Rowlands Understanding the Sun’s movement

Developing understanding
of the Sun’s movement
across the sky
Mark Rowlands

This article discusses the nature of the Sun’s movement across
the sky, as viewed from the Earth’s surface, as well as changes
over the seasons and differences between different places

On primary initial teacher training courses, my
colleagues and I regularly teach a short topic on ‘The
Seeing the pattern of the Sun’s
Earth and space’, going through ideas at key stages 1
(apparent) movement
and 2 and also discussing relevant aspects of students’ What, then, can be seen of the Sun in the sky? Obvious
background knowledge at key stage 3 and beyond. starting points are that the Sun rises in the east and
From these sessions, I often have the impression that sets in the west, and that during the day it is at various
many students are particularly keen to ‘know the facts’ intermediate points in the sky. Between its places of
(since they might, after all, soon be teaching the topic rising and setting the Sun moves across the sky. (With
themselves) but that what they understand by ‘fact’ is our deeper understanding, we would say that it
the scientific model of the Earth as a globe, spinning apparently moves, but this does not take away from
once a day on a tilted axis, and orbiting the Sun once what we see!) Making systematic observations of this
a year. It almost seems that they are not interested in, literally everyday phenomenon is a challenging but
or want to move quickly on from, what can actually rewarding task; see, for example, Moeschl (1993) for
be observed of the skies from the Earth’s surface. In practical suggestions for how to go about this.
this article, I want briefly to try to redress the balance Measuring the angle between the horizontal and the
and to present some of the things that can be observed line from the observer to the Sun is a useful aspect to
about how the Sun moves across the sky, as well as include, and Clish (1983) describes a way of using a
discussing some of the teaching and learning issues clinometer to do this without having to look directly
associated with this. at the Sun. However, the investigator also has to over-
come a range of practical difficulties. First, the Sun’s
brightness is a potential hazard to the eyes: it is very
The details of how the Sun moves across the important that as a teacher one ensures that pupils
sky are not immediately apparent, particularly its know not to gaze directly at the Sun, and that optical
three-dimensional nature. Ways of developing aids such as telescopes must never be used. Then there
an understanding of this are discussed, including is the all-too-common opposite difficulty – not seeing
the use of planetaria, three-dimensional models, it at all because of cloud cover! Also, most of us live
drawings and computer software. Drawings are in an urban environment where it may well be difficult
presented of the Sun’s path as seen from this
country, including seasonal changes, and from
to obtain a clear view of the sky – buildings, trees
other places on the globe. The article sets out to and so on get in the way and are particularly limiting
redress the balance between observations of the in a flattish area. Add to this the slowness of the daily
Sun’s path and the explanation of these movement, which is a real test of patience, and season-
(apparent) movements in terms of the scientific al changes happening over many months. These are
model of the Earth in space. not reasons for giving up on direct observation –

School Science Review, March 2005, 86(316) 69

Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands overcoming them can be very satisfying. set in the hemisphere of the sky above and around us. sunrise sunset Figure 1 Sun’s movement across the sky Using two-dimensional (Learn website). forming a circle. at a place on the latitude of own and pupils’ understanding. or perhaps just for enabling us as teachers to with no trees. and felt-tip pens can be used to draw on it East midday West various positions of the Sun’s path. This is intended as an aid to mathematics Autumn and teaching to introduce geometry on a curved surface. of some. (see Websites). even making firsthand observations. But it does lack the third dimensions are also possible – and are used in this dimension and may be misleading in terms of how article for obvious reasons. they are flexible but firm enough to stand without collapsing. if you are one of the nature of the Sun’s path seems to me of real value for latter. made out of transparent. dimensional model of the sky. if the atmosphere were very. at a distance 70 School Science Review. have programmes that include the diurnal An example of one way of bringing together movement of the Sun across the sky. However. for through. you may need a model to start with. at about the time of either of the questions that they may ask. Never. The kit consists of a transparent plastic sphere Winter about 40 cm in diameter but also comes with hemi- spherical ‘transparencies’.) Grasping for oneself the three-dimensional – like me! – may not find it easy. the Sun actually On an even smaller scale. spring equinoxes but it is very suited to demonstrating the Sun’s path as well. reasonably thick plastic. They are made to fit over the sphere but can be used (and purchased) separately. on the press of a key. Most of the information of the be obtained from the British Association of Planetaria original is included but it lacks the computer anima. teaching at key stage 3 (lower secondary school in I will also provide an explanation of how these are the UK. anyway). It is valuable for clarifying one’s Sun’s path in the sky. As a key stage 2 (upper primary in the UK. drawings Such an impression is probably sufficient for Two-dimensional drawings that attempt to depict three learning at a basic level. including ones that can the Learn website linked to the key stage 3 unit ‘The be inflated inside a classroom (Stockdale. Because of the curvature of the Earth. example. My impression is that someone might use it to visualise how the Sun moves. particularly if we want to guide pupils in clear day. Others year. A transparency is a very good model of the sky. one can use a three- moving. Smaller information is given in Figure 1. Homemade ones are of course entirely possible but a commercially Apparent height Summer available one is the Lenart Sphere (details under of the Sun Apparatus). for extending the thinking equinoxes. the distance The central point about this is that the Sun’s path you could see would be limited. very clear. First imagine that you are on a flat plain. which is taken from planetaria are also available. for answering Manchester. theless. buildings or hills obscuring the view – be more confident in our knowledge of how the Sun or it could be out at sea somewhere – and it is a very moves. I have shown in Figure 2 the 11 years) as well. Both the London Planetarium support and extend the process of thinking this and the Planetarium at Liverpool Museum. tion: this shows. solar system and beyond’ from the QCA exemplar Further details of local and travelling planetaria can scheme of work. 1997). 86(316) . You would see the is along an arc that is (in terms of our direct perception) horizon all around you. some people find these diagrams very easy to interpret (It is also misleading in implying that the Sun rises (and probably find easy grasping the three- and sets in the same directions on each day of the dimensional nature of the Sun’s path. pupils aged 11–14 years) and possibly for drawn and what they are intended to show. pupils aged 7– suitable starting point. knitting observations into a coherent pattern Probably the best aid to realising this is to see a simul- is difficult and there is a need to use other means to ation in a planetarium. March 2005.

The Sun’s path therefore follows the line of such an area. approximation. So the simplified diagram shows diagram. (The other half of the hemisphere is Sun has set it is of course no longer visible but because below us. west. Of course there is no real surface and it is misleading it is a good assumption that it keeps on moving after in certain respects to think that the sky extends to the it has set. diagram shows is complete! In this country. March 2005. And now the explanation of what the movement. and the whole is called the celestial sphere. Rowlands Understanding the Sun’s movement Zenith sky East North P South West horizon Figure 2 Diagram showing the three-dimensional nature of the Sun’s path. moves at the same speed as it did during the same distance all around us. with the a semicircular arc. seen from somewhere above it. Above you is the sky – one can imagine midday/noon. as is the zenith – the point vertically the shape of a circle. The path does not take it through circular horizon drawn as an ellipse because of the zenith directly above you and at its high point – at perspective. the curvature takes 12 hours to accomplish. The obvious one is that between the day it moves across the sky between those places September and March the time during a day of 24 of rising and setting. of about 2/3 miles.) Once the the diagram. But this is a good enough day and along the same-shaped path. Now. The latter is shown as a dotted line in the points for drawing on the path of the Sun’s (apparent) diagram. at last. around March 21 and September This is the basic pattern of the Sun’s path but there 21 – the spring and autumn equinoxes – the Sun rises are interesting changes in this path during the course due east of where you stand and sets due west. halfway in time between sunrise and it is a good day with a bright blue sky extending all sunset – it is still at an angle in the sky. In other words. (At the latitude of under which we live: and so it is drawn like that in Manchester this angle is about 60 degrees. around. half above the horizon and half above in the sky. The sky looks rather like a beautiful blue the plane of the disc the edge of which is the Sun’s surface that is the underside of a hemispherical bowl path is at an angle to the ground. the Sun appears to be ‘on’ the that you would not be aware of it: the ground would sky and this is a reasonable way of depicting it in the seem perfectly flat. Because the sky appears would be so slight (relative to how big people are) to be hemispherical. north and the complete path of the Sun over the 24 hours is in south are shown.) it rises in the east 12 hours after it has set in the west. Over of the year. and on these days this movement hours that the Sun spends above the horizon is shorter School Science Review. The directions of east. In other words. we have some reference below. On the other hand. 86(316) 71 .

too. the Sun’s path is in a position shifted northwards. Another is Notable exceptions are the works of Norman the large extent of the shift: on the longest day the Davidson (1987. short days). 1993). Longest day that is. But the plane of the circular path is still inclined at the same angle to the horizontal. Hopefully. with the longest day on or near June 21. Hopefully it can be seen from Figure 3 that the northward shift of the Sun’s path means that more of its path is above the horizon than is below. 86(316) . the diagram’s depiction of the Sun’s path at the Figure 4 Differences between the Sun’s path shortest day will be clear to the reader without further between shortest and longest days. One is that depiction of the hemispherical sky is commonly used the Sun is never directly overhead. In comparison to Figure 2. although these are not easy Sun is rising as far north as about NE and is setting as to obtain. there are Shortest day longer days than nights. explanation. the two-dimensional shown by Figure 3 about the Sun’s path. The differences of the ones I have found do not go beyond the kind of between the Sun’s paths are shown even more drawing given in Figure 3. March 2005. but rarely used for the Sun’s path. There is a correspondingly large shift south relevant websites (see Useful websites). Figure 3 now includes the Equinoxes Sun’s paths on the shortest and longest days. there are a range of far as NW. Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands longest day shortest day East North South West Figure 3 Sun’s path at the equinoxes and solstices. between March and September. even on the longest in many popular astronomy books to show the stars day – though it does become progressively higher of the night skies. from the shortest day to the longest day. The wonderful CD-ROM strikingly when presented as shown in Figure 4. although most by the time of the shortest day. How are these changes in day length reflected in the Sun’s path across the sky? This is depicted in Figure 3. As one might expect. On the other hand. which again depicts the situation in Manchester or a place at the same latitude. It rises in a position north of due east and sets in a position north of due west. On the longest day. Starry Night (Sienna Software) simulates what you 72 School Science Review. than the time it spends below (long nights. the day is longer than the night. The reader may well be struck by several features In terms of the literature. The shortest day is on or near December 21.

) the theory! Hopefully at this stage. and run it as a stand-alone program. Although it has ‘The of the program is shown in Figure 5. I think observations (or the corresponding observations in his that it is worth considering carefully about how it Figure 5 SunPath. it is a wonderfully understands the theory well enough to explain these flexible tool to have at your disposal. and can therefore point out how useful (See Beare. however. but a more easily accessible and pro- above has focused only on what can be seen and has bably more useful source in this context is SunPath.anu. can they use the theory unlimited range of times and places (including to make predictions about the Sun’s path in other daytimes. included hardly a mention of theory! The task of using software which can be found within the Australia theory to explain observation is of course central to National University’s website (www.html actively to use the ‘tilted Earth’ explanation of seasonal changes in day length (Parker and Heywood. School Science Review. you can download it on to emphasis on the theory. for a useful discussion of Starry this investigation can be for deepening one’s grasp of Night and how best to obtain it.html lack of emphasis on it in literature and a corresponding If you like the look of it. you in various places on Earth can be found in Davidson may even have shed a few misconceptions. And the (1987. it is useful to bear in your hard disc from: mind how challenging it can be for pupils and students http://solar. of course. However. depicted in Figure 3 place. solar system and beyond’).anu. it shows at any places on Earth and the seasonal changes at those one time only what can be seen of the sky in a places? I for one have to own up to being unable to particular direction rather than the whole of the sky. An example of such You can put in information about the time and seasonal change The basic format 1998. you have gained a reason- ably clear. do this initially. such as at about the same latitude as Manchester. Even so. 1993). and also noted in the QCA unit for year at: science teaching – I have wanted to focus on observ- ation in this article only because there seems to be a http://solar. Rowlands Understanding the Sun’s movement can see in the sky from an astonishing and seemingly or her own place of residence).edu. and it will calculate and show the corresponding above. March 2005. If you have come to the article with Helpful software: SunPath little prior specialist knowledge. 86(316) 73 .au/Sun/help/download. But this refers only to what happens in a place path of the Sun. despite its title). If someone not including different longitudes. three-dimensional picture in your mind of the Sun’s path. I hope that you have As well as in this article. drawings of the Sun’s path discovered things you had not previously known.anu.

First. disciplining oneself to think through one’s England (by about eight degrees). The about in Britain there are noticeable differences in angle of the plane of the Sun’s path is even nearer the day length during summer and winter between. and the patterns of change in these is presented in Figure 7. although it has correspondingly shorter days in the and perhaps being surprised by the shapes that are winter. to extend understanding. might be interesting but might not do much differences in the paths of the Sun in the two places. times on a particular day are both later for places to Going even further north. the directions of sunrise and as necessary. using SunPath to sunrise and sunset are to the east and west in both check those predictions and rethinking one’s theory places. 74 School Science Review. by midsummer’s day the activity is worth doing and the patterns worth sunrise and sunset have shifted further north in Orkney explaining. However. Figure 6 shows diagrammatically the produced. But even if you know that. On midsummer’s understanding or when pupils and students explore day. Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands might be used – either when exploring your own the south of England and Orkney. it is well known that the west and earlier for places to the east – relative. On the equinoxes theory to make predictions from it. This is not the This diagram could show what happens on a case for places to the north and south. the Sun at noon is further the main thing that changes is that sunrise and sunset south of the zenith in Orkney than it is in England. within the Arctic Circle there are days of 24 hours’ that is. Even travelling summer’s day at a place inside the Arctic Circle. say. to the place where you are. Orkney has almost two hours more daylight – theirs. during summer. March 2005. horizontal than it is in Scotland and at midnight the South of England longest day South of England equinox Orkney longest day Orkney equinox Z North South Figure 6 Sun’s path compared for South of England and Orkney. that on midsummer’s day. One possible imaginary journey is sunset also move northwards on successive days in described below: I hope that the patterns of the Sun’s both places. the plane of the Sun’s path in Orkney is always A more systematic approach is likely to be more more towards the horizontal than in the south of useful. than they have in England: sunrise and sunset are even north of NE and NW respectively while in England they are a bit south of NE and NW. Typing in a few places and times at random. periods over the year are the same. there daylight. A perhaps unexpected detail is Going to places east or west of somewhere in Britain. But because of the differing tilts in the path depicted at various places will convince you that Sun’s plane of movement. 86(316) . The overall effect The Sun’s path across is that the Sun at Orkney is above the horizon for northerly skies even more of the day. can you describe are no differences in the actual periods of daylight how the Sun moves in the sky? The diagram for this and of darkness.

. each day in the summer and 24 hours of darkness each afternoon leading up to midnight to mid-morning after day in the winter. There is nothing at all like twilight at any like? Astonishingly. 1987: 54–55) is shown in simplified form in Figure 8. Yes. Norway). the Sun circles in the sky above! stage. Davidson describes composed of a series of photographs taken in Norway this in the following memorable way: north of the Arctic Circle. the quality of light changes from mid. day and the autumnal equinox this plane comes down Foto. well within the patterns involved to predict what the situation is the Arctic Circle. Rowlands Understanding the Sun’s movement noon midnight North South Figure 7 Sun’s path during a summer’s day at a place north of the Arctic Circle. . For example. from the same spot. (Figure 9). As the At the poles another extreme is reached in that day progressed. thin photographs were dusk last for over seven weeks each. the photographer turned to point the the year consists of only one day. 86(316) 75 . Pictures and books often way of showing the same thing as Figure 7 (although give the impression that this light at midnight is I remember that it took me a long time to see this!) somewhat eerie. (Davidson. The tall. Skoyen. . . It is closer and closer to the horizon. the Sun is well above the horizon at at the North Pole. there are 24 hours of daylight midnight. Sun is still above the horizon. Box 231. The plane of the Sun’s path remains Incidentally there is a very beautiful popular poster horizontal to the ground but between midsummer’s titled ‘Norway – Land of the Midnight Sun’ (Husmo. but it is a light that matches how far It is a good further test of one’s understanding of above the horizon the Sun is. . It is another horizon 1800 2000 2200 mid 0200 0400 0600 0800 1000 noon 1400 1600 hrs hrs hrs night hrs hrs hrs hrs hrs hrs hrs Figure 8 Sun’s positions in the sky during a summer day at a place north of the Arctic Circle. But what is the path of the Sun midnight. . March 2005. 0212 Oslo 2. dawn and camera at the Sun. dark then pasted together in a long line so that one can see night as such lasts for about two and a half the successive positions of the Sun. The overall effect months . School Science Review.

There is one final (Figure 10). we reach the equator (Figure 11). A particular point places in the southern hemisphere – remembering. the Sun is always Following the principles discussed so far. This at least informs the movement of sunrise to south of east. However. Places along degrees north of the equator) with the Sun’s path in the Tropic of Cancer are a good first stopping place. that summer is from September to March and noon only on one day of the year: midsummer’s day winter from March to September. one has got to a situation has the particular interest that the Sun’s path is vertical where the Sun circles in the sky during the summer to the Earth’s surface. Figure 12 compares the Sun’s path at the one travels southwards. the situation in the southern hemisphere southerly skies can be summed up as the mirror image of that in the I have discussed so far what happens at places to the northern hemisphere. What about places to the south? As principle. the Sun now north of east and sunset north of west. and fascinating twist to the tale: by the time one has Finally. Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands Figure 9 Sun’s path at the North Pole. So. But in contrast to the North Pole. As an example to illustrate the north of Britain. overhead only on two days of the year: the equinoxes. and by circles in an anticlockwise direction – that is. equator). one cannot tell from the Sun’s path what is east or On midsummer’s day. This journeyed to the South Pole. so at midday. The Sun’s path across Continuing with our imaginary journey southwards. the angle of the plane of the time of the equinoxes as it is in Manchester (53 Sun’s path becomes closer to the vertical. North Pole! 76 School Science Review. March 2005. no matter what the time of year. the Falkland Islands (about 52 degrees south of the Here the angle is 23.5° from the vertical. as one midwinter’s day there has been a corresponding looks up at it in the sky. the Sun is directly period (Figure 13). of of interest is that the Sun is vertically overhead at course. the very high in the sky. and sunset to observer that he or she is at the South rather than the south of west. so far will be able to construct similar ones for other wards during the course of the year. there is still the reader who has followed the making of the diagrams ‘migration’ of the Sun’s path northwards and south. just like at the North Pole. As in Britain. sunrise has moved to a position west. 86(316) .

21 June Z 21 December E North South W Figure 11 Sun’s path at a place on the Equator. E North South W Figure 12 Sun’s path compared for places 53° S and N. Rowlands Understanding the Sun’s movement Z Figure 10 Sun’s path at a place on the Tropic of Cancer. 86(316) 77 . School Science Review. March 2005.

Edinburgh: Floris Books. Teacher. Sundials/ March 2005.a. N.asp?WCI=Unit&WCU=2435 Parker. Clish.htm Manchester Metropolitan University. (1993) Exploring the sky. 115– (‘The apparent movement of the Sun across astronomers. References Apparatus Davidson. Bucks HP5 3AP) to 11 years. a new approach to man’s experience of the Moeschl.rowlands@mmu. 503–520. astronomy to upper secondary students.planetarium. R.starrynight.k12. London: Association for Astronomy Education: Routledge and Kegan Paul www. projects for beginning Learn. V.aae. 20(5). sun_ithaca. The Science http://solar. (1983) Exploring the heavens with pupils aged 9 Chesham.html Education. (1987) Astronomy and the imagination. D.madison. 86(316) . (1998) The earth and beyond: developing primary teachers’ understanding of basic Lakota Star Knowledge: astronomical events. Montana State University – Solar Physics Group: Stockdale. School Science California. and Heywood. L. Details on: www. E-mail: stage 3. D. D. 42– (1997) Portable planetarium. 85(313). Useful websites Davidson. and can be purchased in this country from QED Review. Unit 7l: The solar system and Madison Planetarium and Observatory: Sienna Software CD-ROM Starry Night. science at key http://astrosun.cornell. Cornell University: QCA/DfES (1997–2003) Schemes of Work. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.htm www. Devon: Glenmore International Journal of Science www.kstrom.html Mark Rowlands is senior lecturer in science education at the Institute of 195B Berkhamsted Road. (2004) Resources to enliven the teaching of The Lenart Sphere kit is made by Key Curriculum Press.standards.learn. Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands Figure 13 Sun’s path at the South Pole. (1993) Sky phenomena: a guide to naked-eye British Association of Planetaria: observation of the Books (Pentagon Place. the sky’): 78 School Science Review.