Keeping Time in Astronomy

We are sorry this post was so untimely, but you see it was to show how important keeping time is (okay, just bear with us).  Yes, it’s about time for this post!  But why?  That’s because it’s about time of course!  Time is completely derived from watching the motions or being able to see the light of the Sun, Moon, and other objects.  Things can appear slow, fast, or like nothing in terms of time, it’s all relative of course.  In fact to an extent we can say that these clocks have driven us cuckoo!

The basis of time is the SI unit, the second, a special little s that is the only unit that can’t follow our normal SI system of 10.  Where could this even come from?  It used to be one second of minute of one hour of one solar day, therefore being 1/86,400 of a solar day.  Now we can use the wonders of the atomic clock!  The reason is because of all sorts of interference with complex “leap” times; there is even a leap second along with the leap year.  These leap times were done to correct the calendar due to all sorts of errors.  All these factors have led scientists and astronomers to develop many definitions of time.

To start, we have the year.  On average it is about 365.25 days.  So, where does the decimal come from?  To start we have a few different ways to keep time.  Sidereal time, or sidereal motion, looks to the revolution of the Earth with respect to DISTANT STARS.  This comes from observing the sky.  Solar time, also known as synodic motion, is with respect TO THE SUN, it is a daily observation to see when it rotates to get to the same place.  How much of a difference could this make?  Well, the solar day is about 24 hours.  The sidereal day is 23h 56m 4s.  In addition to the slight error, think about how the stars are moving in space.  We are slowing down/speeding up throughout the year, and on the scale of billions of years, or even a few years, these errors can make a fair amount of difference.  To be direct, the motions of the Earth are quite inaccurate.  That alone is reason to develop more accurate time-keeping.  Also, the sidereal year is an orbit around the sun relative to stars, while the tropical year measures between two successive spring equinoxes.  This alone creates a difference of 20 minutes in the year, so  this too builds up over time.

You can see not only is this revolutionary, but it is also timely (from Prof. Richard Pogge, Astronomy 161: An Introduction to Solar System Astronomy,, listed below ).

What would astronomy or science be without have more than a few ways to do something?  There is also standard time.  This was using railroads and telegraphs to standardize time.  It synchronizes clocks of different locations within a time zone not exactly using solar time.  This goes into time zones, dividing the Earth into zones of 15 degrees of longitude.  But this links into Universal Time (UT).  This was used to develop time offsetting from the Prime Meridian.  It was to replace the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) which had multiple definitions.  UT is technically closer to a Mean Solar Time, with Greenwich as the reference.

But then there is more of course.  Eventually, with all these errors scientists decided that our definitions were a bit faulty.  So, the second was defined again.  The interesting thing about the second is it’s the only unit that isn’t regularly used with multiples of 10.  So, this develops into atomic time.  By using Cesium-133 (this is a specific isotope, but if you get your hands on cesium in general…well, please be responsible/have fun with the explosion) has a specific number of cycles with decay.  This has developed  into the notable atomic clock.

Another type of advanced time keeping is Ephemeris Time (ET), based on observing the motions of the planets and the sun.  ET was briefly used to define the SI second, but it has since been phased out as we have discovered better ways of timekeeping.  Now we’ll return to something nuclear.  Nuclear time involves an H-3 (tritium) isotope that beta decays to He-3.  When tritium reaches its half life a nuclear time elapses.  Next we have something very astronomical: pulsar time, the use of binary pulsars (yes, massive stars rotating around each other) to find periods varying by less than a second because of their relatively definite motion.

Lastly, we have one of the more important astronomy-related methods of keeping time.  These are Julian Dates (JD).  This is a continuous count of days since noon Universal Time on January 1, 4713 BCE (this would be on our everyday Julian calendar).  This may seem quite arbitrary, but the reasoning was that at the time of its development, there were no known historical events before this year, so as to avoid negative dates or BC/BCE/AD.  It also links to solar and lunar cycles.  About 2.5 million days have occurred since then, and it may not seem obvious, but this calculation has to take into account leap years, days, minutes, seconds, and other inaccuracies.  However, it is much more accurate and can better show second differences in data collection.  To make life easier, below we have these formulas:

a=\frac { 14-month }{ 12 } \\ y=year+4800-a\\ m=month+12a-3

For dates in the Gregorian calendar:

\\ JD=day+\frac { 153m+2 }{ 5 } +365y+\frac { y }{ 4 } -\frac { y }{ 100 } +\frac { y }{ 400 } -32045

For dates in the Julian calendar:

\\ JD=day+\frac { 153m+2 }{ 5 } +365y+\frac { y }{ 4 } -32083

Aside from this we should note what a common notation is-J2000.  This is related to epochs, saying that time is starting from the JD on the date January 1, 2000.



Time can be taken from keeping track of specific stars in the sky, relative to the sun, from atomic clocks and pulsars, or simply by measuring the amount of time from a specific date.  While time may not seem directly important, but a lot of work has been put into this concept.  It is the basis of a large portion of physics and technology.  Astronomy itself benefits immensely from being able to orderly be able to keep track of time for objects.  So next time your clock wakes you up in the morning, remember to not throw it across the room, because it’s just another way of reminding us how important time is.  Also, it means that you should get the heck out of bed or else you’ll be late.



Time in general

Julian Dates

This entry was posted in General.

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