The ecliptic, as astronomers call it, is the apparent path of the sun against the background of the stars in the sky.
It’s useful because it tells us how to find the planets in the sky. They can be hard to spot if you don’t know where to look, but they will always be somewhere along one imaginary line that arcs across the sky—the ecliptic.
This pattern never changes. The planets don’t follow the ecliptic exactly, but it’s useful for getting an idea of where they should be.
But why does it work—and what exactly does it mean, when it’s obvious we can’t see the sun among the stars of the night sky?
We have a bit of a shorter post today—I thought precession warranted its own post, before I go on to talking about the ecliptic.
Precession refers to the way Earth wobbles around on its axis, a bit like a top. This motion is caused by the sun and moon’s gravity tugging on the planet, and is key to understanding how many ancient cultures viewed the sky.
When you look up at the night sky on a clear, dark night, it seems as if the stars are glittering like bright thumbtacks on a great canvas above you. (You can get a similar effect–with less light pollution–from a planetarium like the one above!)
In reality, space is not like a canvas, and stars are not like thumbtacks. It would be more accurate to describe us Earthlings as floating in a vast, cosmic ocean.
Astronomers know this. But still, it’s helpful to map the sky in exactly the way it appears to us: as a sphere around the Earth. And so we use a model called the celestial sphere.
Telescopes operate solely based on the celestial sphere: the mechanism that aims the telescope doesn’t need to know anything about how far away an object actually is in the cosmic sea, just where it is in the sky.
That makes the celestial sphere a useful reference tool. Researchers need to communicate with telescope operators and say, “Let’s look over there now.”
And so, everything is mapped on a spherical model that pretends the night sky is a finite globe, inside which the Earth hovers like a bubble.