Glossary term: Earth's Rotation

Redirected from Polar Axis

Description: Earth has two simultaneous motions: a daily rotation around its axis and an annual revolution (orbit) around the Sun. The rotation of Earth around its axis results in the phenomena of day and night, as the location of a particular place relative to the Sun changes in a gradual and regular manner over a 24-hour cycle as Earth turns from west to east.

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Term and definition status: This term and its definition have been approved by a research astronomer and a teacher

The OAE Multilingual Glossary is a project of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Education (OAE) in collaboration with the IAU Office of Astronomy Outreach (OAO). The terms and definitions were chosen, written and reviewed by a collective effort from the OAE, the OAE Centers and Nodes, the OAE National Astronomy Education Coordinators (NAECs) and other volunteers. You can find a full list of credits here. All glossary terms and their definitions are released under a Creative Commons CC BY-4.0 license and should be credited to "IAU OAE".

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The Big Dipper, seven bright stars shaped like a ladle, viewed in 4 seasons, each time at a different angle

Big Dipper in Four Seasons

Caption: Winner in the 2022 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Still images of celestial patterns.   As Earth moves around the Sun, the positions of the stars in the night sky appear to change over the course of the year. This is well exemplified in this mosaic, with images taken in all four seasons throughout 2020 in the region of Veneto, Italy, showing the apparent motion of the Ursa Minor and Ursa Major constellations. Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, is a constellation of the northern hemisphere, and it contains the northern celestial pole, in our current epoch marked by a bright star called Polaris or the Pole Star. For centuries Polaris has been used for navigation in the northern hemisphere, as it has been almost at the exact pole position for roughly 200 years. In the Middle Ages and antiquity, there was no pole star; the celestial north pole lay in a dark region and the Greeks considered the “Little She-Bear” as a companion of the “Great She-Bear”, which is more easily recognizable. The brightest stars of these constellations were alternatively also considered as chariots by the Greeks, as written in Aratus’s famous didactic poem from the 3rd century before the common era. The most famous asterism in Ursa Major, composed of seven stars, has different names across the (northern) world. While considered as a chariot by the Greeks, it is “The Northern Dipper” in China, and “The Seven Oxen” for the ancient Romans. It was also the navigational purpose that led to the name The Great She-Bear, Ursa Major; for the Greeks, travelling towards the direction of the horizon above which Ursa Major appears meant moving towards the land of the bears (northern Europe). An animal is clearly recognizable when taking into account all the fainter stars in the vicinity of the seven bright ones. They considered it a female bear because Greek mythology connects this animal with the nymph Callisto, whose story describes the initiation rituals for women. In the top left, we see an image taken on a spring evening, while the image below shows the same portion of the sky on a summer evening. Going counterclockwise, we see the sky during autumn in the bottom right image, while the top right finally shows this portion of the sky in the winter. Note that the relative positions of Ursa Minor and the Big Dipper don’t change, but all stars appear to be moved in a circle around Polaris. This star pointing due north lies at the point where Earth’s rotational axis intersects the celestial sphere. The shift of constellations throughout the year is therefore a globe-clock or a globe-calendar, used by ancient civilizations to measure the year, and to predict the changes of seasons. It helps to establish, for instance, the best time for sowing and sailing as winds change with the seasons.
Credit: Giorgia Hofer/IAU OAE

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Hundreds of small arcs made by stars form circles centred on a point near the horizon. A tree stands in the foreground.

Star Trail in the Southern Hemisphere with Bortle 4 Scale Light Pollution

Caption: This breathtaking photo, captured under the clear night sky of Linggamekar Village, Cilimus, Kuningan, West Java, Indonesia on 25 June 2020, displays star trails sweeping across the southern hemisphere’s heavens. The star trails are due to Earth’s rotation causing the apparent motion of stars, creating these mesmerising arcs of light when followed over extended periods. Here, the point the stars rotate around (the South Celestial Pole) is close to the horizon, as the image was taken close to the equator. The photographer used the star trail feature on a smartphone, which captured a series of images over an extended period and stacked them together. The striking tree in the foreground adds depth to the image, contrasting the celestial motion above with its Earthly stillness, while also masking some of the surrounding light pollution. Different parts of the world offer diverse and stunning perspectives on the night sky, emphasising the importance of preserving dark skies everywhere.
Credit: Slamat Riyadi/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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The Milky Way appears as a diagonal stripe bottom left to top right. It becomes more horizontal as the video progresses.

Southern Sky Over La Silla

Caption: This video shows the Milky Way’s sprawling brilliance across the celestial expanse. Among the stars’ grand theatre, the Southern Cross constellation claims its place in the scene, distinguished by its distinctive cross shape as seen in the top of this video and slightly to the right just over the Milky Way, slowly disappearing as the video progresses. This celestial marker, a prominent feature in the southern hemisphere, holds cultural and navigational significance, having served as a navigational guidepost for centuries. Accompanying the Milky Way’s grandeur are the two Magellanic clouds, celestial companions seen dancing in the distant sky. The Carina Nebula adds its ethereal glow to the cosmic panorama, painting a radiant hue against the darkness. In the midst of this celestial ballet, a gentle green hue envelops the atmosphere, a phenomenon known as airglow, adding a touch of subtle luminescence to the night sky. The terrestrial also makes an appearance, with planes flying overhead and vehicles driving between observatory buildings. This time-lapse, taken from the La Silla Observatory in Chile, is a window to the captivating dance of stars, offering a glimpse into the awe-inspiring beauty of our galaxy and the celestial landmarks that grace the southern sky.
Credit: José Rodrigues/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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The Southern Cross points out the South Celestial Pole, around which the sky appears to rotate

Beautiful Night in the Atacama Desert

Caption: Taken from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, in June 2023, this time-lapse reveals the celestial ballet that unfolds as the Southern Cross takes its majestic journey across the sky, pointing the way to the South Celestial Pole around which the sky rotates, until it gracefully sets. The star-studded canvas showcases the grandeur of the Milky Way, adorned by the rotating Large and Small Magellanic Clouds swirling around the Southern Celestial Pole. The prominent constellations of Crux, Centaurus, Scorpius, and the former Argo Navis (Carina, Puppis, Vela) are also visible. The spectacle begins just after nightfall, capturing the radiant descent of Canopus, a beacon about to dip below the horizon. Throughout the sequence, there is a subtle presence of passing aeroplanes, fleeting headlights of cars, drifting clouds, and the ethereal airglow. At a stunning moment, a vivid meteor streaked across the sky, a breathtaking fireball briefly igniting the right lower corner around the 41st second mark. As the sequence progresses, the rising moon elegantly illuminates the landscape, casting its glow upon an ancient tree trunk resting on the dry, dusty grounds of the Salar de Atacama. This captivating journey through the night skies concludes before the break of dawn, offering a glimpse into the celestial marvels that are woven into the nocturnal tapestry of San Pedro de Atacama.
Credit: Uwe Reichert/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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The dish of a radio telescope rotates as the Big Dipper moves in the sky behind.

The Big Dipper with the Sardinia Radio Telescope SRT

Caption: This time-lapse captures the movement of the stars alongside the majestic 64-metre Sardinia Radio Telescope (SRT) from the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), with special attention to the renowned Big Dipper against the backdrop of the celestial sphere. The camera pans as the famous asterism sinks in the sky while planes fly past and the radio telescope rotates. The harmonious interplay between the stellar pathways and the colossal dish of the radio telescope creates a mesmerising visual ode to the cosmic ballet taken in September 2019.
Credit: Antonio Finazzi/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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Small arcs of stars streak across the sky forming a circular pattern. Two dashed straight lines appear on the right.

Star Trails

Caption: Taken in the darkness of Panotiya, Amartiya village, India, this image from October 2022 showcases beautiful star trails painting the night sky. With only a smartphone and a tripod, the photographer captured these trails — visual evidence of our planet's rotation, as each streak represents the apparent movement of the stars as the Earth spins, creating a captivating cosmic choreography of light. The distinct colours of the stars — some gleaming blue, others whitish — hint at their varying temperatures and compositions. Additionally, a subtle streak of an aeroplane momentarily intersects the timeless dance of the stars, juxtaposing the serene heavens with the bustling activity of life below.
Credit: Govind Gurjar/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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The Big Dipper sinks in the sky with the handle sweeping out a larger circle than the bowl of the asterism.

Big Dipper Over the Mono Lake

Caption: The Big Dipper asterism gracefully moves above the otherworldly tufa formations of Mono Lake, California. The time-lapse captures the Big Dipper’s movement across the northern horizon until its inferior conjunction. At Mono Lake’s latitude (+38°), the stars of the Big Dipper remain circumpolar, except for Alkaid. The North Star sits 38° above the horizon, just outside the field of view in the top right. The lunar illumination bathes the landscape in a soft glow, gradually fading as the Moon sets, cloaking the scene in darkness.
Credit: Fabrizio Melandri/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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Timelapses of rotating skies behind trees, telescopes, mountains and observatories

The Rotating Planet

Caption: A cosmic journey unfolds across continents in this time-lapse video which captures both iconic constellations from diverse corners of the world. Starting in China, the Big Dipper graces the night sky, a steadfast guide embedded in cultural narratives. Its luminance marks the beginning of this celestial odyssey. The two pointer stars on the end of the Big Dipper point to the North Star (Polaris) which appears to remain stationary as the sky rotates. From Nepal’s lofty peaks, the Big Dipper’s familiarity persists, a reliable fixture in the shifting panorama of the rotating planet. Moving to Chile, the Southern Cross adorns the firmament, emblematic of the southern skies. Frames from Chile showcase this constellation accompanied by the Milky Way Galaxy. In Namibia, a telescope from the H.E.S.S. Observatory appears in the video. Later, nestled beneath sheltering trees, the Big Dipper persists in its celestial prominence, appearing against a canvas of stars. Using varied techniques — fisheye lenses, static cameras, and Earth's movement-tracking — each frame unveils the Cross’s grandeur against diverse landscapes. These sequences — marked by star trails and Earth’s rotation—highlight the enduring presence of the Big Dipper and Southern Cross, bridging cultures and celestial beauty across hemispheres.
Credit: Jianfeng Dai/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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