Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Living on a moon: Marking time

There is a certain class of exotic location often used in science fiction and that is the surface of a moon.

Most of what I'm going to say will apply to moons like Earth's but I'm going to focus on the moons of gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn partly because they're a little more interesting and partly because if you want to know about day and night on the moon, it's more trivial to look up.

Planets orbiting a star

First, let's talk about ordinary (Earth-like) planets orbiting a star. They will have a year defined by how long it takes them to do a complete orbit of their sun and a day defined by how long it takes them to spin on their axis. Actually, there are two possible definitions of a day:
  • the solar day, which is how long it takes the planet to rotate all the way around so that the sun returns to the same place in the sky (or more accurately, until it returns to the same point above the planet. On Earth, the meridian passing through Greenwich and the middle of the Pacific ocean is the reference point we use).
  • and the sidereal day, which is how long it takes the planet to rotate about its axis so that the stars return to the same position in the sky.
On Earth, a sidereal day is slightly shorter than a solar day (only 23.9 hours) and this will be true of any planet that spins in the same direction as it orbits. So the Earth, looking down on the north pole, spins anti-clockwise and orbits the sun anticlockwise. Such a planet is in a prograde orbit. This is true of all the planets except Uranus, which is sideways, and most of their moons. It is in general going to be true of all systems if they formed together (thanks to conservation of angular momentum) and if a planet isn't prograde (that is, if it's particularly lopsided like Uranus or if it's retrograde meaning spins or orbits in the opposite direction) then it probably has a more interesting history. In the case of Uranus, it is thought that some collision knocked it sideways a long time ago. For retrograde planets, where one each of orbit and rotation are clockwise and anticlockwise, the implication is that they did not form where they are found, but are interlopers from elsewhere. Or there could also have been a collision, but it would have to be a very large collision in exactly the right place. It's interesting to note that all the planets orbit in the same direction as the sun rotates. This is strong evidence that they all formed from the same nebula at roughly the same time.

Moons: Mostly tidally locked

OK, enough background. On to the moons. Let's assume we have a rocky moon orbiting a gas giant planet. All the interesting moons in our solar system (which is to say, the ones I checked and generally most or all of the big ones) are tidally locked with their primary, including Earth's moon. What does tidally locked actually mean?

I won't go into the details of the physics, but if a satellite is tidally locked with its primary, the same side will always face the primary. So on Earth, we always see the same side of the moon. If you go to the moon and land on the near side, Earth will always be in the same place in the sky (assuming you don't travel far from your landing place) varying only in how much of it is lit up by the sun. It's also possible to have planets tidally locked with their sun, but they have to be quite close to their sun for this to happen. Consequently, most of those planets wouldn't be habitable for humans, unless the star in question was a red dwarf, but that's a topic for another blog post.

Back to our rocky moon orbiting a gas giant. Since it's tidally locked, you will need to decide where you want to place your colony/city. Directly under the primary planet so that it always sits high in the sky? On the side of the planet which never sees the primary? These choices will depend a bit on your whim and a bit on the purpose of the colony. For the latter, if it's a research installation studying the primary or a mining installation skimming gas from the primary's atmosphere, it makes the most sense to build it directly below the primary. On the other hand, if the research installation is built for astronomy observations, you'd want to put it on the non-planet side so that light from the sun reflected from the primary interferes with your telescopes less.

Days and nights?

Once you've made that decision, you probably want to know how long days and nights will be on your moon. This is where it gets a bit tricky. I'm going to use Ganymede, one of the larger moons of Jupiter, as an example. Thanks to its synchronous orbit (another way of saying that it's tidally locked), a sidereal day on Ganymede is the same as it's orbital period. Orbital period is the general term for how long it takes to orbit all they way around Jupiter. (I'd prefer to say "Jovian day", but unfortunately that term refers to one of Jupiter's solar days. :-/ ) So unless it orbits very quickly, orbital period would not be a useful measure of time to base diurnal cycles on. And if it did have a fast enough orbit, it probably wouldn't be very habitable since that would imply that it was very close to the primary like Io (the innermost Galilean moon of Jupiter), leading to a host of problems like extreme volcanism and earthquakes. As I hope the crude sketch I did below helps illustrate, a solar day on Ganymede (that is, the length of time it takes for the sun to move all the way across the sky and come back to its starting point) is also the same length as an orbital period.*

Not to scale! Top right circle is the sun, orange circle is Jupiter with the lighter half the half that is illuminated by the sun and the darker brown half the dark side. The grey shadow is Jupiter eclipsing the sun and the rainbow circle is Ganymede, so coloured to illustrate that the same side is always pointing towards Jupiter. The thick black line shows its orbit around Jupiter and the light and dark semicircles inside Jupiter's orbit are to help guess how full/dark/crescent/gibbous Jupiter would appear in Ganymede's sky (if you're on the side of Ganymede facing Jupiter).

We can also use that diagram to work out how much of Jupiter would be lit up by the sun if we're on a the side of Ganymede facing Jupiter. It should also be noted that, unlike the Earth being lit up by the moon and human lights at night and hence being visible from the moon even when it's not lit up by the sun, the dark side of Jupiter would be completely dark. Against the black sky of Ganymede (and the sky would always be black, even during the day, since Ganymede has no atmosphere to scatter photons with) it would just look like a black hole in the stars. A black hole about 15 full moons across.

*Technically it would be slightly less thanks to Jupiter's orbit around the sun, but Jupiter is so far out from the sun and has such a large distance to travel that day to day we can ignore the small difference to the length of a Ganymedean solar day. If your gas giant is much closer to its star, it might become relevant, but this calculation is left as an exercise for the reader. ;-)

Time moves forward

Finally, it would be useful to work out how quickly Jupiter and the sun change in Ganymede's sky, especially if you're writing a story that involves spending longer than a day there. I will make this section more general so that you can use for any hypothetical moon orbiting an arbitrary gas giant.

What you need to know or decide is the orbital period, let's call it T,  a piece of paper with your own approximation of the diagram above (without all the different positions of Ganymede drawn in yet), and a protractor (or a really good eye for angles). For Ganymede, T = 7.15 (Earth) days. If you're making up a planet-moon system of similar size, it's probably best you're numbers don't deviate too much. I think I might make the proper physics you need to consider when making up planets the subject of a future blog post.

On your hand drawn diagram, choose a starting position for your planet and a location on the surface for your colony. I suggest putting your colony close to the equator because a) it will be more picturesque and b) Ganymede has some crazy magnetic fields and I suspect that radiation shielding would be easiest to achieving within about 30º latitude of the equator. This doesn't automatically apply to all moons in similar systems, but still, it can't hurt. Draw your moon in it's starting position and mark the location of your colony with a cross or something. Remember that looking down from above the north pole, the moon will probably be orbiting anticlockwise if it's in our solar system.

Next, you need to do a small piece of maths. Decide how much time you want to pass before you mention what the gas giant is looking like in the sky again. Call this time t. Make sure T and t are in the same units (convert them both to days or both to hours, whichever is more convenient, if they don't match). To work out how many degrees, d, of a circle the moon has moved in this time, you need to use the following equation:
d = 360*t/T

In one Earth day, Ganymede will move d = 360*1/7.15 = 50.3º which is a bit more than an eight of a circle. On the diagram above, that's a little bit more than the distance between two consecutive rainbow Ganymedes (ignoring the two close together in Jupiter's shadow). Since T is so small for Ganymede, this means that Jupiter and the sun change quite dramatically in the sky (Earth) day to (Earth) day. Depending on how your planet-moon system is set up, your mileage may vary.

Multiple moons

And a quick bonus calculation: if your planetary system has multiple moons your feel like caring about, you can do the above calculation for each of them, choose starting points and then see how far each one moves in the span of time you're interested in. This doesn't need to be very hard at all. In the jovian system, Io completes four orbits in the time it takes Ganymede to complete one and Callisto completes two in the same time. This convenient state of events is thanks to the physical principle of resonance. Resonance happens in all sorts of places in nature and celestial mechanics, including Saturn's rings and Mercury, so feel free to implement it with impunity.

Hopefully, I've given you enough information to convincingly set a story on a moon orbiting a gas giant planet. Well, in a colony at least, where you don't have to worry too much about external climate, so long as you stay away from Io.


  1. Ha. I've just finished a story set on Io, where I've gone through all this. I've set it close to the subjovian point, where Jupiter is always overhead, if you can speak of 'overhead' for something that huge. Effectively, they don't have a night, since during the time that there is no sunlight, they'll get huge refection off Jupiter (Jupitershine). The only time it's going to be dark is during the daily eclipse for rouhgly two hours out of each 42-hour day. And it's going to be pretty bloody dark then.
    Also, when you're close to gas giants like this, apart from a few volcanoes (humphs--bah, volcanoes) your major problem is going to be massive radiation that would kill a person in minutes.

  2. With the Jupitershine, you'd still get it going through phases which would a) look pretty damn cool and b) change the light Io was getting. Hmm... Now I want to calculate how dark it would be on Ganymede with just Jupitershine... *starts thinking about the albedo of Jupiter* I think I'll wait until I get up to such a day in story-time ;-)

    The radiation is why I suggested putting the colony (and another upside of colonies is the potential for radiation shielding or similar) is because Ganymede's magnetic field lines are such that outside of about 30º latitude from the equator, they join on to Jupiter's mag field lines, and don't loop back to the ground like they do on Earth everywhere except the poles. That would mean you'd have some natural magnetic shielding from radiation near the equator that you wouldn't at higher/lower latitudes. If nothing else, it should make your radiation shielding a little bit cheaper.

  3. My thought is that even when Jupiter is nearly eclipsing the sun, you'd still have a fairly sizeable aura (what'd they call it? penumbra?) where you get deflected light because of the gaseous nature of Jupiter's atmosphere. In essence, it doesn't have a clear boundary, much like an solar/Earth eclipse on the Moon would look fuzzy because of Earth's atmosphere, as opposed to a solar eclipse on Earth, which has a much more clear boundary. All that hydrogen/helium/wahtever in the outer layers of Jupiter will be scattering light like crazy (colour?) and I'm guessing you'll probably see trails of vapour unless you're right behind the planet.

  4. I was really, really hoping that NASA had a photo of Jupiter eclipsing the sun. After a bunch of searching and remembering the rather awesome pic of Saturn which looks quite translucent ( from its dark side, thanks to ring reflections, I finally found this: (And for more info on that pic: So, I think Jupiter's atmosphere is too dense except around the edges to really let light through. Those bright lines at the edge would provide some illumination too, though right now it seems like it's anyone's guess how much (I could be wrong there, but I'm also too tired to keep looking right now).

  5. agree that the picture of Saturn backlit by its own rings is so awesome that it probably deserves to go onto my desktop ;-)


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