|Date||Sunrise||Later by||Sunset||Earlier by||Daylight shorter by|
|August 4||5.36am||10 mins||8.46pm||11 mins||21 mins|
|August 11||5.47am||11 mins||8.34pm||12 mins||23 mins|
|August 18||5.58am||11 mins||8.20pm||14 mins||25 mins|
|August 25||6.08am||10 mins||8.06pm||14 mins||24 mins|
|September 1||6.19am||11 mins||7.51pm||15 mins||26 mins|
|September 8||6.30am||11 mins||7.35pm||16 mins||27 mins|
|September 15||6.41am||11 mins||7.20pm||15 mins||26 mins|
|September 22||6.52am||11 mins||7.04pm||16 mins||27 mins|
|September 29||7.03am||11 mins||6.48pm||16 mins||27 mins|
|October 6||7.14am||11 mins||6.32pm||16 mins||27 mins|
|October 13||7.26am||12 mins||6.17pm||15 mins||27 mins|
|October 20||7.37am||11 mins||6.03pm||14 mins||25 mins|
|October 27*||6.49am||12 mins||4.49pm||14 mins||26 mins|
|November 3||7.01am||12 mins||4.37pm||12 mins||24 mins|
|November 10||7.13am||12 mins||4.25pm||12 mins||24 mins|
|November 17||7.25am||12 mins||4.16pm||9 mins||21 mins|
|November 24||7.36am||11 mins||4.08pm||8 mins||19 mins|
|December 1||7.47am||11 mins||4.03pm||5 mins||16 mins|
|December 8||7.55am||8 mins||4.00pm||3 mins||11 mins|
|December 15||8.02am||7 mins||4.00pm||0 mins||7 mins|
|December 22||8.07am||5 mins||4.02pm||minus 2 mins||3 mins|
|December 29||8.08am||1 min||4.07pm||minus 5 mins||minus 4 mins|
[* The clocks change from Central European Time (often called British Summer Time) to Universal Time (oftern called Greenwich Mean Time)]
But what is causing this?
In the sky, there is an equivalent of latitude known as declination - and this is measured in degrees. And the connection is that objects of a declination equal to the latitude pass overhead at some point in the siderial day - which is about 4 minutes shorter than the day we are used to (as a rough rule of thumb, in a 365-day year, the stars are im the same position 366 times).
So, if we take Southampton, at a latitude of 50 degrees 55 minutes, then we expect anything that has a declination of 50 degrees 55 minutes to pass overhead - these will be the constellations of Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga, Lynx, Ursa Major, Canes Venatici, Boötes, Hercules, Draco, Cygnus and Lacerta.
As we might expect, the more further north an object is, the longer it spends above the horizon. If we deduct 50 degrees 55 minutes from 90 degress, then we get 39 degrees 5 minutes, and anything further north than that is circumpolar, which means it is alwsys above the horixon. The north pole of the sky (near to the star Polaris) is 50 degrees 55 minutes above the horizon, due north, from Southampton, so anything less than 50 degrees 55 minutes from it (i.e. anything with a declination of more than 39 degrees 5 minutes) will be too close to go below the horizon.
That means that all of Camelopardalis, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Draco and Ursa Minor and parts of Andromeda, Auriga, Boötes, Canes Venatici, Corona Borealis, Cygnus, Hercules, Lacerta, Leo Minor, Lynx, Lyra, Perseus and Ursa Major are circumpolar.
If we move to the other end of the United Kingdom - to Lerwick, which is 60 degrees 9 minutes north, then anything with a declination greater than 29 degrees 51 minutes will be circumpolar. This now brings in the remaider of Lacerta, Lynx and Perseus, more of Andromeda, Auriga, Boötes, Canes Venatici, Corona Borealis, Cygnus, Hercules, Leo Minor, Lyra and Ursa Major, along with parts of Aries, Cancer, Coma Berenices, Gemini, Leo, Pegasus, Pisces, Taurus and Triangulum.
It takes a bit of spherical geometry to work out how long an object at a certain declination will spend continually above the horizon from Southampton:
|Declination||Time above horizon|
|+23 degrees*||16h 9m|
|+22 degrees||15h 56m|
|+21 degrees||15h 43m|
|+20 degrees||15h 30m|
|+15 degrees||14h 32m|
|+10 degrees||13h 38m|
|+5 degrees||12h 47m|
|0 degrees||11h 58m|
|-5 degrees||11h 9m|
|-10 degrees||10h 18m|
|-15 degrees||9h 24m|
|-20 degrees||8h 26m|
|-21 degrees||8h 13m|
|-22 degrees||8h 0m|
|-23 degrees||7h 47m|
[* Here we follow the convention of northern declinations being positive and southern ones being negative]
One thing that is noticeable is that the amount of time an object is above the horizon changes decreases at its slowest rate at the celestial equator - when the declination is zero. For example, an object with a declination of 39 degrees will be above the horizon continually for 23 hours 21 minutes, while an object just 1 degree south of that will be above the horizon for "only" 21 hours 50 minutes.
You will note that an object on the celestial equator is above the horizon continually for just 11 hours 58 minutes - this might seem odd, but it is half a siderial day.
It is sometimes said that the equinoxes are when night and day are equal. However, this year the autumnal equinox is on September 22, and the Sun is above the horizon for 12 hours 12 minutes - it is not until September 25 that the Sun is above the horizon for just 12 hours.
There are two effects causing this. Firstly, the Sun is not a point source - it is about half a degree across. So it takes time to rise and set - around the solstices it will be just over 4 minutes, and around the equinoxes just over 3 minutes.
The second effect is refraction. Have you ever done the experiment of putting a pencil in a glass of water, and seeing that it appears bent? This is an effect of the light slowing down a bit in water (it's the light that is bent, not the pencil), and a similar effect occurs in the atmosphere. A direct line from the Sun to you might pass through the Earth (just!) but the atmosphere is bending the light, so they Sun is a bit higher than it should be, and hence above the horizon. Both these effects lengthen the day a little bit.
Another thing to note is that as we approach the equinox, something changes. At the summer solstice, the Sun begins in Taurus (all images from Heavens Above).
Then on June 21 it enters Gemini.
Followed by Cancer on July 20.
Then Leo on August 10.
And Virgo on September 16.
Notice the line in all of these which the Sun lies on and the planets lie near - this is called the ecliptic. You'll see that in Taurus and Gemini it's quite shallow, with the declination not changing much, and by the time it gets to Leo the ecliptic gets steeper, so the Sun's declination is decreasing faster. We can see this by the dates the Sun reaches certain declinations:
|+20 degrees||July 23|
|+15 degrees||August 12|
|+10 degrees||August 27|
|+5 degrees||September 10|
|0 degrees||September 22|
|-5 degrees||October 5|
|-10 degrees||October 19|
|-15 degrees||November 3|
|-20 degrees||November 21|
And if we look at the time it takes:
|+20 degrees||+15 degrees||20|
|+15 degrees||+10 degrees||15|
|+10 degrees||+5 degrees||14|
|+5 degrees||0 degrees||12|
|0 degrees||-5 degrees||13|
|-5 degrees||-10 degrees||14|
|-10 degrees||-15 degrees||15|
|-15 degrees||-20 degrees||18|
So, as you might expect, the Sun's declinaton changes fastest near the equinox - not only does the day get shorter, but it gets noticeably lower in the sky.
If the Sun's declination is changing faster, then something must slow to compensate - after all the ecliptic is inclined. There is a celestial equivalent to longitude, which is known as right ascension, and this is measured in units of time. In one siderial day, the sky rotates through 24 hours of right ascension. With 365 days in the year, you would expect the Sun's right ascension to increase by just under 4 minutes per day.
And it would - if the Earth orbited in a circle and the axis was not inclined.
However, the Earth orbits in an ellipse, as demonstrated in the 17th century by Johannes Kepler as one his three laws of planetary motion. The second and third tell us that when the Earth is closest to the Sun (perihelion) in early January then it is moving fastest, and conversely, when it is furthest from the Sun (aphelion) in early July then it is moving slowest. So the Sun is moving fastest along the ecliptic in early January and slowest along the ecliptic in early July.
And if the Sun's declination is changing faster than average then its right ascension is changing slower than average. The time between midday and midday remains the same from day to day. So, if the Sun's right ascension is changing slower than average, then it is at its highest, due south, slightly earlier than the day before - and this is the period around the equinoxes. And conversely, if the Sun's right ascension is changing faster than average, then it is at its highest slightly later than the day before.
And we see this effect with our rise and set times in the first table. Notice that the amount of time sunrise was getting later by did not match the amount of time that sunset was getting earlier by. That is because until about early November, the Sun is at its highest earlier each day. And so, as the day shortened, the change in setting time is greater than the change in rising time.
After early November the effect is reversed, and by the time we get to mid-December the Sun's declination isn't changing much, so the length of the day isn't changing much. But the time the Sun is at its highest is getting later, so this leads to a period from around mid-December to early January where both sunrise and sunset are getting later. Although the shortest day is December 21, the winter solstice, by that point we have already passed the earlest sunset. Look for the effect round Christmas and Hogmanay of the evenings starting to get a bit lighter while the mornings get a bit darker.