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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
ABSTRACT
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 –

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Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands

overcoming them can be very satisfying. Never- set in the hemisphere of the sky above and around us.
theless, 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. Both the London Planetarium
support and extend the process of thinking this and the Planetarium at Liverpool Museum, for
through. example, have programmes that include the diurnal
An example of one way of bringing together movement of the Sun across the sky. Smaller
information is given in Figure 1, which is taken from planetaria are also available, including ones that can
the Learn website linked to the key stage 3 unit ‘The be inflated inside a classroom (Stockdale, 1997).
solar system and beyond’ from the QCA exemplar Further details of local and travelling planetaria can
scheme of work. Most of the information of the be obtained from the British Association of Planetaria
original is included but it lacks the computer anima- (see Websites).
tion: this shows, on the press of a key, the Sun actually On an even smaller scale, one can use a three-
moving. dimensional model of the sky. 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). This is intended as an aid to mathematics
Autumn and teaching to introduce geometry on a curved surface,
spring equinoxes
but it is very suited to demonstrating the Sun’s path
as well. The kit consists of a transparent plastic sphere
Winter about 40 cm in diameter but also comes with hemi-
spherical ‘transparencies’, made out of transparent,
reasonably thick plastic; they are flexible but firm
enough to stand without collapsing. They are made
to fit over the sphere but can be used (and purchased)
separately. A transparency is a very good model of
the sky, and felt-tip pens can be used to draw on it
East midday West various positions of the Sun’s path.
sunrise sunset

Figure 1 Sun’s movement across the sky Using two-dimensional


(Learn website).
drawings
Such an impression is probably sufficient for Two-dimensional drawings that attempt to depict three
learning at a basic level. 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. My impression is that
someone might use it to visualise how the Sun moves. 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, anyway). Others
year.) Grasping for oneself the three-dimensional – like me! – may not find it easy; if you are one of the
nature of the Sun’s path seems to me of real value for latter, you may need a model to start with. However,
teaching at key stage 3 (lower secondary school in I will also provide an explanation of how these are
the UK, pupils aged 11–14 years) and possibly for drawn and what they are intended to show. As a
key stage 2 (upper primary in the UK, pupils aged 7– suitable starting point, I have shown in Figure 2 the
11 years) as well. It is valuable for clarifying one’s Sun’s path in the sky, at a place on the latitude of
own and pupils’ understanding; for answering Manchester, at about the time of either of the
questions that they may ask; for extending the thinking equinoxes. First imagine that you are on a flat plain,
of some; or perhaps just for enabling us as teachers to with no trees, 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, particularly if we want to guide pupils in clear day. Because of the curvature of the Earth, even
making firsthand observations. if the atmosphere were very, very clear, the distance
The central point about this is that the Sun’s path you could see would be limited. You would see the
is along an arc that is (in terms of our direct perception) horizon all around you, forming a circle, at a distance

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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.

of about 2/3 miles. On the other hand, the curvature takes 12 hours to accomplish. Because the sky appears
would be so slight (relative to how big people are) to be hemispherical, 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. So the simplified diagram shows diagram. The Sun’s path therefore follows the line of
such an area, seen from somewhere above it, with the a semicircular arc. 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. Above you is the sky – one can imagine midday/noon, 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,
around. 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. (At the latitude of
under which we live: and so it is drawn like that in Manchester this angle is about 60 degrees.) Once the
the diagram. (The other half of the hemisphere is Sun has set it is of course no longer visible but because
below us, and the whole is called the celestial sphere.) it rises in the east 12 hours after it has set in the 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, moves at the same speed as it did during the
same distance all around us. But this is a good enough day and along the same-shaped path. In other words,
approximation. The directions of east, west, north and the complete path of the Sun over the 24 hours is in
south are shown, as is the zenith – the point vertically the shape of a circle, half above the horizon and half
above in the sky. Now, at last, we have some reference below. The latter is shown as a dotted line in the
points for drawing on the path of the Sun’s (apparent) diagram. And now the explanation of what the
movement. diagram shows is complete!
In this country, 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. Over of the year. 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, and on these days this movement hours that the Sun spends above the horizon is shorter

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Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands

longest day

shortest day

East
North South

West

Figure 3 Sun’s path at the equinoxes and solstices.

than the time it spends below (long nights, short days).


The shortest day is on or near December 21. On the
other hand, between March and September, there are Shortest day
longer days than nights, with the longest day on or
near June 21. How are these changes in day length
reflected in the Sun’s path across the sky? This is
depicted in Figure 3, which again depicts the situation
in Manchester or a place at the same latitude. In
comparison to Figure 2, Figure 3 now includes the
Equinoxes
Sun’s paths on the shortest and longest days. On the
longest day, the Sun’s path is in a position shifted
northwards. It rises in a position north of due east
and sets in a position north of due west. But the plane
of the circular path is still inclined at the same angle
to the horizontal. 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, Longest day
that is, the day is longer than the night. Hopefully,
too, 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.
explanation.
The reader may well be struck by several features In terms of the literature, the two-dimensional
shown by Figure 3 about the Sun’s path. One is that depiction of the hemispherical sky is commonly used
the Sun is never directly overhead, even on the longest in many popular astronomy books to show the stars
day – though it does become progressively higher of the night skies, but rarely used for the Sun’s path.
from the shortest day to the longest day. Another is Notable exceptions are the works of Norman
the large extent of the shift: on the longest day the Davidson (1987, 1993), although these are not easy
Sun is rising as far north as about NE and is setting as to obtain. As one might expect, there are a range of
far as NW. There is a correspondingly large shift south relevant websites (see Useful websites), although most
by the time of the shortest day. 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. The wonderful CD-ROM
strikingly when presented as shown in Figure 4. Starry Night (Sienna Software) simulates what you

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Rowlands Understanding the Sun’s movement

can see in the sky from an astonishing and seemingly or her own place of residence), can they use the theory
unlimited range of times and places (including to make predictions about the Sun’s path in other
daytimes, despite its title); however, 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. do this initially, and can therefore point out how useful
(See Beare, 2004, for a useful discussion of Starry this investigation can be for deepening one’s grasp of
Night and how best to obtain it.) the theory!
Hopefully at this stage, you have gained a reason-
ably clear, three-dimensional picture in your mind of
the Sun’s path. If you have come to the article with
Helpful software: SunPath
little prior specialist knowledge, I hope that you have As well as in this article, drawings of the Sun’s path
discovered things you had not previously known; you in various places on Earth can be found in Davidson
may even have shed a few misconceptions. And the (1987, 1993), 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,
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.anu.edu.au/) at:
science teaching – I have wanted to focus on observ-
ation in this article only because there seems to be a http://solar.anu.edu.au/Sun/SunPath/index.html
lack of emphasis on it in literature and a corresponding If you like the look of it, you can download it on to
emphasis on the theory. Even so, it is useful to bear in your hard disc from:
mind how challenging it can be for pupils and students http://solar.anu.edu.au/Sun/help/download.html
actively to use the ‘tilted Earth’ explanation of
seasonal changes in day length (Parker and Heywood, and run it as a stand-alone program. The basic format
1998, and also noted in the QCA unit for year 7, ‘The of the program is shown in Figure 5.
solar system and beyond’). An example of such You can put in information about the time and
seasonal change is, of course, depicted in Figure 3 place, and it will calculate and show the corresponding
above. But this refers only to what happens in a place path of the Sun. Although it has limitations, such as
at about the same latitude as Manchester. If someone not including different longitudes, it is a wonderfully
understands the theory well enough to explain these flexible tool to have at your disposal. However, I think
observations (or the corresponding observations in his that it is worth considering carefully about how it

Figure 5 SunPath.

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Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands

might be used – either when exploring your own the south of England and Orkney. On midsummer’s
understanding or when pupils and students explore day, Orkney has almost two hours more daylight –
theirs. Typing in a few places and times at random, although it has correspondingly shorter days in the
and perhaps being surprised by the shapes that are winter. Figure 6 shows diagrammatically the
produced, might be interesting but might not do much differences in the paths of the Sun in the two places.
to extend understanding. First, 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, disciplining oneself to think through one’s England (by about eight degrees). On the equinoxes
theory to make predictions from it, using SunPath to sunrise and sunset are to the east and west in both
check those predictions and rethinking one’s theory places; during summer, the directions of sunrise and
as necessary. 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. But because of the differing tilts in the
path depicted at various places will convince you that Sun’s plane of movement, by midsummer’s day
the activity is worth doing and the patterns worth sunrise and sunset have shifted further north in Orkney
explaining. 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. 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. A perhaps unexpected detail is
Going to places east or west of somewhere in Britain, that on midsummer’s day, 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.
times on a particular day are both later for places to Going even further north, it is well known that
the west and earlier for places to the east – relative, within the Arctic Circle there are days of 24 hours’
that is, to the place where you are. However, there daylight. But even if you know that, 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, and the patterns of change in these is presented in Figure 7.
periods over the year are the same. This is not the This diagram could show what happens on a
case for places to the north and south. Even travelling summer’s day at a place inside the Arctic Circle. 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, say, horizontal than it is in Scotland and at midnight the

South of England longest day South of England equinox

Orkney longest day Orkney equinox

North South

Figure 6 Sun’s path compared for South of England and Orkney.

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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.

Sun is still above the horizon. 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, 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. For example, well within the patterns involved to predict what the situation is
the Arctic Circle, the Sun is well above the horizon at at the North Pole. Yes, there are 24 hours of daylight
midnight; the quality of light changes from mid- each day in the summer and 24 hours of darkness each
afternoon leading up to midnight to mid-morning after day in the winter. But what is the path of the Sun
midnight. There is nothing at all like twilight at any like? Astonishingly, the Sun circles in the sky above!
stage. (Figure 9). 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- day and the autumnal equinox this plane comes down
Foto, Box 231, Skoyen, 0212 Oslo 2, Norway). It is closer and closer to the horizon. Davidson describes
composed of a series of photographs taken in Norway this in the following memorable way:
north of the Arctic Circle, from the same spot. As the At the poles another extreme is reached in that
day progressed, the photographer turned to point the the year consists of only one day. . . dawn and
camera at the Sun. The tall, thin photographs were dusk last for over seven weeks each. . . 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 . . . (Davidson, 1987: 54–55)
is shown in simplified form in Figure 8. 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.

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Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands

Figure 9 Sun’s path at the North Pole.

The Sun’s path across Continuing with our imaginary journey


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

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Rowlands Understanding the Sun’s movement

Figure 10 Sun’s path at a place on the Tropic of Cancer.

21 June Z 21 December

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.

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Understanding the Sun’s movement Rowlands

Figure 13 Sun’s path at the South Pole.

References Apparatus
Beare, R. (2004) Resources to enliven the teaching of The Lenart Sphere kit is made by Key Curriculum Press,
astronomy to upper secondary students. School Science California, and can be purchased in this country from QED
Review, 85(313), 115–125. Books (Pentagon Place, 195B Berkhamsted Road,
Clish, D. V. (1983) Exploring the heavens with pupils aged 9 Chesham, Bucks HP5 3AP)
to 11 years. Devon: Glenmore Publications.
Useful websites
Davidson, N. (1987) Astronomy and the imagination, a new
approach to man’s experience of the stars. London: Association for Astronomy Education:
Routledge and Kegan Paul www.aae.org.uk
Davidson, N. (1993) Sky phenomena: a guide to naked-eye British Association of Planetaria:
observation of the heavens. Edinburgh: Floris Books. www.planetarium.org.uk
Moeschl, R. (1993) Exploring the sky, projects for beginning Learn.co.uk (‘The apparent movement of the Sun across
astronomers. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. the sky’):
www.learn.co.uk/default.asp?WCI=Unit&WCU=2435
Parker, J. and Heywood, D. (1998) The earth and beyond:
developing primary teachers’ understanding of basic Lakota Star Knowledge:
astronomical events. International Journal of Science www.kstrom.net/isk/stars/starkno3.html
Education, 20(5), 503–520. Cornell University:
QCA/DfES (1997–2003) Schemes of Work, science at key http://astrosun.tn.cornell.edu/courses/astro201/
stage 3, Unit 7l: The solar system and beyond. sun_ithaca.htm
www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/schemes2/secondary_science/ Madison Planetarium and Observatory:
Sienna Software CD-ROM Starry Night. Details on: www.madison.k12.wi.us/planetarium/ftdg2.htm
www.starrynight.com Montana State University – Solar Physics Group:
Stockdale, D. L. (1997) Portable planetarium. The Science http://solar.physics.montana.edu/YPOP/Classroom/Lessons/
Teacher, 64, 42–45. Sundials/sunpath.html

Mark Rowlands is senior lecturer in science education at the Institute of Education, Manchester Metropolitan
University. E-mail: m.a.rowlands@mmu.ac.uk

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