by Anupum Pant
The sun – as seen from Earth
For most of us living on Earth (closer to the equator), the sun has followed a simple path throughout the years. It rises, goes up at noon and then sets for rest of the day. It is a simple straight line for the complete year.
For people living a little away from the equator, things get a bit interesting. There, the summer sun at noon is overhead, but the winter sun is low at noon, not overhead. It isn’t very easy for a person living near the equator to grasp this phenomenon well. You’ll have to go there and see for yourself. Or simply, the simulator at the end of this paragraph will help you understand it better.
At poles, the sun almost moves horizontally for many days. It keeps on making a horizontal circle around you. There, it is day for 6 months and night for the next 6 months. [Here is a sun path simulator for Earth]
However, nowhere on earth, things get as interesting as they get in the skies of Mercury.
The sun – as seen from Mercury
On Mercury, the sun appears to briefly reverse its usual east to west motion once every Mercurian year. The effect is visible from any place on Mercury, but there are certain places on its surface, where an observer would be able to see the Sun rise about halfway, reverse and set, and then rise again, all within the same day. It is indeed an unusual performance which isn’t easy for us Earthlings to digest. [See animation in the next paragraph]
Why does it happen?
Let us consider a simpler analogy – some planets (like Mars), as seen from earth, take a similar path. [see the animation for Mars’s path as seen from earth]
The planets, including Earth, all travel around the Sun in a continuous orbit. We can see them make their way across the sky in a straight line usually. However, every now and then a planet appears to turn around. After turning around, it appears to move back the way it came. This is called a retrograde orbit and is caused due to the difference in speeds at which the planets circle the Sun.
So, as we see Mars do a reverse from earth, a similar motion of sun is observed from the surface of Mercury.[Apparent Retrograde Motion – Wikipedia]