Probing Question: Why does the Earth rotate?

Aug 06, 2007
Earth

We spend our lives on a spinning globe -- it takes only 24 hours to notice that, as night follows day and the cycle repeats. But what causes Earth to rotate on its axis?

The answer starts with the forces that formed our solar system.

A fledgling star gathers a disk of dust and gas around itself, said Kevin Luhman, an assistant professor of astronomy at Penn State. As things coalesce, the star's gravitational orbit sets that dust and gas to spinning. "Any clump that forms within that disk is going to naturally have some sort of rotation," Luhman said.

As the clump collapses on itself it starts spinning faster and faster because of something called conservation of angular momentum. Figure skaters exploit this law when they bring their arms closer to their bodies to speed up their rate of spin, Luhman explained. Since gravity pulls inward from all directions equally, the amorphous clump, if massive enough, will eventually become a round planet. Inertia then keeps that planet spinning on its axis unless something occurs to disturb it. "The Earth keeps spinning because it was born spinning," Luhman said.

Different planets have different rates of rotation. Mercury, closest to the sun, is slowed by the sun's gravity, Luhman noted, making but a single rotation in the time it takes the Earth to rotate 58 times. Other factors affecting rotational speed include the rapidity of a planet's initial formation (faster collapse means more angular momentum conserved) and impacts from meteorites, which can slow down a planet or knock it off stride.

Earth's rotation, he added, is also affected by the tidal pull of the moon. Because of the moon, the spin of the Earth is slowing down at a rate of about 1 millisecond per year. The Earth spun around at a faster clip in the past, enough so that during the time of the dinosaurs a day was about 22 hours long.

In addition to slowing the Earth's rotation, the moon's tidal pull is causing the moon to slowly recede from the Earth, at a rate of about 1 millimeter per year. In the distant past, the moon was closer. "It would have appeared much larger in our sky than it does now," Luhman said.

Millions of years from now, he added, the cycle of a day on Earth will likely stretch to 25 or 26 hours. People will have to wait a little longer for the rising of the sun.

Source: By Mike Shelton, Research Penn State

Explore further: Burning passion: Chinese rich pay sky-high meteorite prices

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Length of exoplanet day measured for first time

Apr 30, 2014

Observations from ESO's Very Large Telescope have, for the first time, determined the rotation rate of an exoplanet. Beta Pictoris b has been found to have a day that lasts eight hours. This is quicker than ...

Probing Question: What are Shooting Stars?

Apr 09, 2008

In the early morning darkness on April 15, 1912, as the R.M.S. Titanic was sinking in the freezing Atlantic, survivors witnessed a large number of streaking lights in the sky, which many believed to be the ...

Recommended for you

Cassini sees sunny seas on Titan

12 hours ago

(Phys.org) —As it soared past Saturn's large moon Titan recently, NASA's Cassini spacecraft caught a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off hydrocarbon seas.

Is space tourism safe or do civilians risk health effects?

15 hours ago

Several companies are developing spacecraft designed to take ordinary citizens, not astronauts, on short trips into space. "Space tourism" and short periods of weightlessness appear to be safe for most individuals ...

An unmanned rocket exploded. So what?

18 hours ago

Sputnik was launched more than 50 years ago. Since then we have seen missions launched to Mercury, Mars and to all the planets within the solar system. We have sent a dozen men to the moon and many more to ...

NASA image: Sunrise from the International Space Station

19 hours ago

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman posted this image of a sunrise, captured from the International Space Station, to social media on Oct. 29, 2014. Wiseman wrote, "Not every day is easy. Yesterday was a tough one. ...

Copernicus operations secured until 2021

19 hours ago

In a landmark agreement for Europe's Copernicus programme, the European Commission and ESA have signed an Agreement of over €3 billion to manage and implement the Copernicus 'space component' between 2014 ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.