The path of the sun through the sky seems regular enough: It rises in the east, arcs high through the sky with a peak at noon, and settles down in the west. But to get a sense of how complicated the movements of the sun and the Earth really are, try out this simulator. Built by a team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it shows what the sun would look like passing through the sky at any time, on any day, anywhere on Earth.
It’s most fun, though, to look at places where the sun’s elaborate annual cycles create the most dramatic changes on Earth. Think about Stonehenge, for instance, which is thought to have helped ancient people track the winter and summer solstices. This representation shows the noon-time Sun as it changes throughout the year at Stonehenge’s latitude. It’s clear why people at this latitude would be watching the sun carefully: look how low it stays in the winter. You’d be watching for the end of those dark days, too.
Or look at the polar regions, the land above the Arctic Circle or down in Antarctica. In the Land of the Midnight Sun, there are days where the sun never sets for months at a time. (The inverse happens, too—some days, the sun never rises.) Here’s what that looks like, over the course of a year:
Even at the equator, where the Sun is often thought to rise directly overhead, the Sun goes through an annual shift. The noon Sun at the equator is always high in the sky, but it slowly drifts from north to south, meaning that if you stood still for a year your shadow would slowly bounce from side-to-side.
The simulator doesn’t take everything into account, but it’s a fun way to get your head around some of the complex interactions that go on in space. In fact, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln team actually have big range of similar interactive apps, from one to help calculate the phase of the Moon to a calculator to find the habitable zone for planets around other stars.
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