Friday, December 7, 2012

Year-long days and living in them

This blog post was inspired by an email conversation with someone regarding the possibility of a planet having year-long (or half-year long) day/night cycles. The original question was whether this is even possible and whether such a planet would be habitable.

From a purely astronomical point of view, this is definitely possible. There's no reason why you couldn't have a slowly rotating planet at around the same distance from it's sun as Earth is (well any reasons that do exist are fairly theoretical so we can ignore them). That said, if the planet is similar to Earth and its sun is similar to ours, then you kind of have to have the same length year because the length of the year (ie how long it takes to orbit the star) depends only on the mass of the star and the distance from it. This is due to Kepler's Laws, which I have previously discussed here. If you made no changes to star/planet distance, the year length would have to be the same.

Image nicked from Wiki here. The little red line
represents the same point on the surface of
Mercury. The numbers are the order in which
the positions happen: 6, 1, 2 are night for
the red line and 3, 4, 5 are day, roughly.

You could also have something similar to Mercury which has three rotations (called "sidereal days" which are measured relative to the stars, not the sun) to two years. Because it rotates so slowly, weird stuff happens with its solar days (the light/dark periods, completely ignoring the positions of stars) so that in one year it experiences half a solar day. Mercury is like this because it's so close to the sun. It could have been tidally locked (the same side always facing the sun – discussed further, including for Mercury in particular, here) but the gravitational effects of the other planets in the solar system caused this more unusual resonance.

However, if we're talking a planet as distant from the sun as Earth is, there's no danger of it becoming tidally locked in the sort of cosmological time frame we're currently living in. The time taken for the angular momentum between planet and star to be distributed into the tidally locked configuration takes longer the further apart they are (and the less massive when they're close enough). The Earth-moon system will eventually become more tidally locked: the moon already faces the same side towards us all the time, and eventually the same side of Earth will always point towards the moon.

But that's a bit of a tangent, back to planets with long days and nights. You could have a planet rotating as slowly/quickly as you like, but you should be mindful that the people living there would almost certainly have a way of distinguishing between sidereal and solar days. Ancient people on Earth already had this worked out (the difference between sidereal and solar days is why the stars move across the sky with the seasons).

Living there

Uranus: almost completely sideways.
If you did have a planet with a year-long day, the periods of day and night would be roughly equal in the same way they are on Earth, just scaled up. It could vary a bit depending on the planet's axial tilt (how much the line between the poles is tilted relative to the plane of it's orbit — Earth's is around 23º and changes slightly when earthquakes occur) so the more inclined the axis, the more extreme the seasons. If there was no or very little axial tilt, there wouldn't be seasons. The other variable in day/night lengths is the latitude. Further away from the equator sunrise and sunset would last longer and the shortness of winter days and length of summer days would be more extreme (as on Earth, but a different axial tilt could make this more so). If there was no axial tilt, the poles would be in a state of twilight permanently. The other extreme is something like Uranus which has a 90º-ish axial tilt so that during a southern summer the south pole points towards the sun and during a southern winter the south pole gets no sun at all. Spring and Autumn are the transition period. The equator is in twilight during summer and winter and has more "normal" days, like what we're used to, during spring and autumn.

Also, astronomical plausibility aside, I'm not convinced complicated life could naturally arise on a planet with a super-long day/night cycle, due to the long periods of boiling (day) and freezing (night). In terms of temperature-stability, probably only the twilight areas would be habitable. I suppose you could have migrating species (but that also has problems because in staying in permanent twilight they'd need sufficient landmasses connecting the two poles). Also, you'd probably get some sort of storms around the twilight zone, since the temperature would be in in a state of flux. I'm not an expert on atmospheres or meteorology, though, so that's a (-n educated) guess and I can't be too specific. But in short: our 24 hour days are what keeps Earth's temperature relatively temperate and suitable for life.

There's be fewer issues for microbial life to arise but I don't know that anything larger would be viable. Maybe at the poles: if the planet was slightly closer to its star than Earth is, there could be non-migratory life living near the poles and with a stable orbit and rotational period, it should survive. Since the non-polar regions wouldn't have naturally arising complex life, there could be with completely different ecosystems/forms of life at either pole with only something like microbial ancestors connecting them.

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