Hello, friends! Welcome to another posting of the A to Z Challenge. My theme for this year’s challenge is the planet Mercury, a planet that often gets overlooked by space geeks like me. In today’s post, S is for:
SOLAR vs. SIDEREAL DAYS
We’ve been talking about Mercury all month long, and we’ve been talking a lot about Mercury’s rotation rate. In some posts, I’ve told you that Mercury has a rotation rate equal to approximately 59 Earth days. In other posts, I said a day on Mercury is about 176 Earth days long. That seems like a contradiction, but both of those numbers are correct. It all depends on whether we’re talking about a solar day or a sidereal day.
A solar day can be defined as the time it takes a planet to rotate once relative to the Sun, while a sidereal day is the time it takes a planet to rotate once on its own axis. A solar day is what we Earthlings usually mean by the word “day.” It’s the 12 a.m. on Monday to 12 a.m. on Tuesday kind of day. A sidereal day (pronounced si-der-e-al) is more like a planet’s true rotation period, relative to the rest of the universe. Why are these things different? Because planets orbit the Sun. Because as they orbit, they change position relative to the Sun.
In Earth’s case, it takes about 23 hours and 56 minutes to rotate once on its own axis, but because Earth moves through space during that time (changing positions relative to the Sun), it takes an extra 4 minutes to rotate once in reference to the Sun. And according to my math, 23 hours and 56 minutes, plus an extra 4 minutes, makes Earth’s solar day 24 hours long.
The situation is similar for Mars. A Martian sidereal day is about 24 hours and 37 minutes, while a Martian solar day is more like 24 hours and 40 minutes. For both Earth and Mars, the difference is small. Most of the time, it’s not worth mentioning. But on Mercury, a sidereal day is 59 Earth days long, while a solar day ends up being 176 Earth days in length. You see, Mercury rotates very, very slowly. Over the course of one sidereal day, Mercury travels two-thirds of the way around the Sun. That puts Mercury in a very different position, relative to the Sun, at the end of a sidereal day. As a result, Mercury’s solar day ends up being longer—a whole lot longer—than Mercury’s sidereal day.
I have to admit I had a hard time understanding the distinction between solar and sidereal days the first time I heard about it. I hope that I have done a decent job explaining it to you. But if anyone was wondering why I quoted different numbers in different posts for Mercury’s day/rotation period, this is the reason I did that. For some topics, the sidereal day matters; for others, it’s the solar day that’s important. And for the purposes of the A to Z Challenge, I wanted to save this discussion for S-day, so I just glossed over it until now.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
I’m going to recommend an article from Universe Today called “How Long is a Day on Mercury?”
I also want to recommend another article from Universe Today called “How Long is a Day on Venus?” because if you think Mercury’s day is confusing, wait until you hear how messed up a day on Venus is.