Coordinating the Heavens Help

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 15, 2011

Coordinating the Heavens

What do you suppose prehistoric people thought about the sky? Why does the Sun move differently from the Moon? Why do the stars move in yet another way? Why do star patterns change with the passing of many nights? Why do certain stars wander among the others? Why does the Sun sometimes take a high course across the sky and sometimes a low course? Are the Sun, the Moon, and the stars attached to a dome over Earth, or do they float free? Are some objects farther away than others?

A thousand generations ago, people had no quantitative concept of the sky. In the past few millennia, we have refined astronomical measurement as a science and an art. Mathematics, and geometry in particular, has made this possible.

Points On A Sphere

It is natural to imagine the sky as a dome or sphere at the center of which we, the observers, are situated. This notion has always been, and still is, used by astronomers to define the positions of objects in the heavens. It’s not easy to specify the locations of points on a sphere by mathematical means. We can’t wrap a piece of quadrille paper around a globe and make a rectangular coordinate scheme work neatly with a sphere. However, there are ways to uniquely define points on a sphere and, by extension, points in the sky.

Meridians And Parallels

You’ve seen globes that show lines of longitude and latitude on Earth. Every point has a unique latitude and a unique longitude. These lines are actually half circles or full circles that run around Earth.

The lines of longitude, also called meridians , are half circles with centers that coincide with the physical center of Earth (Fig. 1-1 A ). The ends of these arcs all come together at two points, one at the north geographic pole and the other at the south geographic pole. Every point on Earth’s surface, except for the north pole and the south pole, can be assigned a unique longitude.

The lines of latitude, also called parallels , are all full circles, with two exceptions: the north and south poles. All the parallels have centers that lie somewhere along Earth’s axis of rotation (Fig. 1-1 B ), the line connecting the north and south poles. The equator is the largest parallel; above and below it, the parallels get smaller and smaller. Near the north and south poles, the circles of latitude are tiny. At the poles, the circles vanish to points.

All the meridians and parallels are defined in units called degrees and are assigned values with strict upper and lower limits.

Coordinating the Heavens Points On A Sphere Degrees, Minutes, Seconds

Figure 1-1. At A , circles of longitude, also called meridians. At B , circles of latitude, also called parallels.

Degrees, Minutes, Seconds

There are 360 degrees in a complete circle. Why 360 and not 100 or 1000, which are “rounder” numbers, or 256 or 512, which can be divided repeatedly in half all the way down to 1?

No doubt ancient people noticed that there are about 360 days in a year and that the stellar patterns in the sky are repeated every year. A year is like a circle. Various familiar patterns repeat from year to year: the general nature of the weather, the Sun’s way of moving across the sky, the lengths of the days, the positions of the stars at sunset. Maybe some guru decided that 360, being close to the number of days in a year, was a natural number to use when dividing up a circle into units for angular measurement. Then people could say that the stars shift in the sky by 1 degree, more or less, every night. Whether this story is true or not doesn’t matter; different cultures came up with different ideas anyway. The fact is that we’re stuck with degrees that represent 1/360 of a circle (Fig. 1-2), whether we like it or not.

For astronomical measurements, the degree is not always exact enough. The same is true in geography. On Earth’s surface, 1 degree of latitude represents about 112 kilometers or 70 miles. This is okay for locating general regions but not for pinpointing small towns or city blocks or individual houses. In astronomy, the degree may be good enough for locating the Sun or the Moon or a particular bright star, but for dim stars, distant galaxies, nebulae, and quasars, smaller units are needed. Degrees are broken into minutes of arc or arc minutes , where 1 minute is equal to Coordinating the Heavens Points On A Sphere Degrees, Minutes, Seconds of a degree. Minutes, in turn, are broken into seconds of arc or arc seconds , where 1 second is equal to Coordinating the Heavens Points On A Sphere Degrees, Minutes, Seconds of a minute. When units smaller than 1 second of arc are needed, decimal fractions are used.

Coordinating the Heavens Points On A Sphere Degrees, Minutes, Seconds

Figure 1-2. There are 360 degrees in a complete circle.

Let’s take a close look at how latitude and longitude coordinates are defined on the surface of Earth. It will help if you use a globe as a visual aid.

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