Dominic Ford, Editor
From the Earth feed
21 December will be the shortest day of 2020 in the northern hemisphere, midwinter day.
This is the day when the Sun's annual journey through the constellations of the zodiac reaches its most southerly point in the sky, in the constellation of Capricornus at a declination of 23.5°S. This day is counted by astronomers to be the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere.
In the southern hemisphere, the Sun is above the horizon for longer than on any other day of the year, and astronomers define this to be the first day of summer.
At the solstice, the Sun appears overhead at noon when observed from locations on the tropic of Capricorn, at a latitude 23.5°S.
Sunrise and sunset times for Cambridge
Sunrise and sunset times
The table to the right lists the sunrise and sunset times in Cambridge around the solstice. At this time of year, noon – the moment when the Sun appears highest in the sky – moves around a minute later each day.
This phenomenon is described by the equation of time, and is caused by slight variations in the length of each day depending on the time of year.
In some months, days can be up to 20 seconds longer or shorter than 24 hours, in a predictable pattern which repeats every year. This arises from two effects:
- The rate of the Sun's eastward movement through the constellations changes over the course of the year. It is fastest at the solstices, and slowest at the equinoxes.
- The Earth's orbit around the Sun is not a perfect circle, but is slightly elliptical. This means that its orbital speed changes through the year.
Both these effects very slightly alter the rate of movement of the Sun across the sky, adding or subtracting a few seconds from the time it takes to get from noon on one day to noon the next day.
Clocks, however, continue to run at a constant rate at all times of year. This means that, at those times of year when days are shorter than 24 hours, noon drifts earlier in the day. When days are longer than 24 hours, the noon comes later each day.
In December, each solar day lasts fractionally longer than 24 hours, and so the time of noon moves around a minute later each day.
The shift also affects sunrise and sunset times, and means that the latest sunrise and earliest sunset do not occur on the day of the solstice itself. Instead, the earliest sunset occurs a couple of weeks beforehand, and the latest sunrise is a couple of weeks later.
Solstices occur because the axis of the Earth's spin – its polar axis – is tilted at an angle of 23.5° to the plane of its orbit around the Sun.
The direction of the Earth's spin axis remains fixed in space as it circles around the Sun, while the Earth's sight line to the Sun moves through the constellations of the zodiac. As a result, sometimes the Earth's north pole is tilted towards the Sun (in June), and at other times it is tilted away from it (in December). This gives rise to the Earth's seasons:
The date of the solstice
|Year||Time of solstice|
|2016||21 Dec 05:41 EST|
|2017||21 Dec 11:23 EST|
|2018||21 Dec 17:16 EST|
|2019||21 Dec 23:12 EST|
|2020||21 Dec 04:55 EST|
|2021||21 Dec 10:53 EST|
|2022||21 Dec 16:43 EST|
|2023||21 Dec 22:24 EST|
|2024||21 Dec 04:20 EST|
The Earth orbits the Sun once every 365.242 days, and this is the time period over which the cycle of solstices and equinoxes, and consequently all the Earth's seasons, repeat from one year to the next.
In any year which is not a leap year, the solstices occur roughly 5 hours and 48 minutes – just under a quarter of a day – later from one year to the next.
This is why the seasons would drift later in the year if it was not for an additional day being inserted inserted into every fourth year on 29 February.
The chart below shows the time when the December solstice falls in each year. The gradual drift of the four-year cycle earlier in the month is due to the equinoxes repeating 12 minutes less than a quarter of a day later each year.
In the Gregorian calendar, this is fixed by omitting leap years in three out of every four century years, e.g. 1700, 1800 and 1900, but not 2000.
The date of Christmas
Christmas borrows its date from ancient pagan midwinter festivals, even though in the modern calendar Christmas now falls a few days after astronomical midwinter.
This anomaly has come about because the system of leap days which are sometimes inserted into our calendar on February 29 was only refined to its present form by the Gregorian calendar reforms of the 16th century. Before this, the average length of each year did not quite match the period of time with which the seasons repeat – 365.2422 days – and so the seasons drifted through the year by a small amount each century. So, in the distant past, the winter solstice occurred a few days later than it does today.
The 2020 solstice
The exact position of the Sun when it reaches its most southerly declination in 2020 will be (J2000.0 coordinates):
|Object||Right Ascension||Declination||Constellation||Angular Size|
|The sky on 21 December 2020|
7 days old
All times shown in EST.
The circumstances of this event were computed using the DE430 planetary ephemeris published by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
This event was automatically generated by searching the ephemeris for planetary alignments which are of interest to amateur astronomers, and the text above was generated based on an estimate of your location.
The Earth, as seen by the Apollo 17 astronauts. © NASA