Julian year (astronomy)

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In astronomy, a Julian year (symbol: a) is a unit of measurement of time defined as exactly 365.25 days of 86400 SI seconds each. [1] [2] [3] [4] The length of the Julian year is the average length of the year in the Julian calendar that was used in Western societies until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, and from which the unit is named. Nevertheless, because astronomical Julian years are measuring duration rather than designating dates, this Julian year does not correspond to years in the Julian calendar or any other calendar. Nor does it correspond to the many other ways of defining a year.



The Julian year is not a unit of measurement in the International System of Units (SI), but it is recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as a non-SI unit for use in astronomy. [3] Before 1984, both the Julian year and the mean tropical year were used by astronomers. In 1898, Simon Newcomb used both in his Tables of the Sun in the form of the Julian century (36 525 days) and the "solar century" (36524.22 days), a rounded form of 100 mean tropical years of 365.24219879 d each according to Newcomb. [5] However, the mean tropical year is not suitable as a unit of measurement because it varies from year to year by a small amount, 6.14×10−8 days according to Newcomb. [5] In contrast, the Julian year is defined in terms of SI units so is as accurate as those units and is constant. It approximates both the sidereal year and the tropical year to about ±0.008 days. The Julian year is the basis of the definition of the light-year as a unit of measurement of distance. [2]


In astronomy, an epoch specifies a precise moment in time. The positions of celestial objects and events, as measured from Earth, change over time, so when measuring or predicting celestial positions, the epoch to which they pertain must be specified. A new standard epoch is chosen about every 50 years.

The standard epoch in use today is Julian epoch J2000.0. It is exactly 12:00 TT (close to but not exactly Greenwich mean noon) on January 1, 2000 in the Gregorian (not Julian) calendar. Julian within its name indicates that other Julian epochs can be a number of Julian years of 365.25 days each before or after J2000.0. For example, the future epoch J2100.0 will be exactly 36,525 days (one Julian century) from J2000.0 at 12:00 TT on January 1, 2100 (the dates will still agree because the Gregorian century 2000–2100 will have the same number of days as a Julian century).

Because Julian years are not exactly the same length as years on the Gregorian calendar, astronomical epochs will diverge noticeably from the Gregorian calendar in a few hundred years. For example, in the next 1000 years, seven days will be dropped from the Gregorian calendar but not from 1000 Julian years, so J3000.0 will be January 8, 3000 12:00 TT.

Julian calendar distinguished

The Julian year, being a uniform measure of duration, should not be confused with the variable length historical years in the Julian calendar. An astronomical Julian year is never individually numbered. When not using Julian day numbers (see next §), astronomers follow the same conventional calendars that are accepted in the world community: They use the Gregorian calendar for events since its introduction on October 15, 1582 (or later, depending on country), and the Julian calendar for events before that date, and occasionally other, local calendars when appropriate for a given publication.

Julian day distinguished

A Julian year should not be confused with the Julian day, which is also used in astronomy (more properly called the Julian day number or JDN). The JDN uniquely specifies a place in time, without becoming bogged down in its date-in-month, week, month, or year in any particular calendar. Despite the similarity of names, there is almost no connection between the Julian day numbers and Julian years.

The Julian day number is a simplified time-keeping system originally intended to ease calculation with historical dates which involve a diversity of local, idiosyncratic calendars. It was adopted by astronomers in the mid-1800s, and identifies each date as the integer number of days that have elapsed since a reference date ("epoch"), chosen to precede most, if not all, historical records. A specific time within a day, always using UTC, is specified via a decimal fraction.

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Astronomical unit Mean distance between Earth and the Sun, common length reference in astronomy

The astronomical unit is a unit of length, roughly the distance from Earth to the Sun and equal to about 150 million kilometres or ~8 light minutes. The actual distance varies by about 3% as Earth orbits the Sun, from a maximum (aphelion) to a minimum (perihelion) and back again once each year. The astronomical unit was originally conceived as the average of Earth's aphelion and perihelion; however, since 2012 it has been defined as exactly 149597870700 m.

Calendar System for organizing the days of year

A calendar is a system of organizing days. This is done by giving names to periods of time, typically days, weeks, months and years. A date is the designation of a single, specific day within such a system. A calendar is also a physical record of such a system. A calendar can also mean a list of planned events, such as a court calendar or a partly or fully chronological list of documents, such as a calendar of wills.

The term ephemeris time can in principle refer to time in association with any ephemeris. In practice it has been used more specifically to refer to:

  1. a former standard astronomical time scale adopted in 1952 by the IAU, and superseded during the 1970s. This time scale was proposed in 1948, to overcome the disadvantages of irregularly fluctuating mean solar time. The intent was to define a uniform time based on Newtonian theory. Ephemeris time was a first application of the concept of a dynamical time scale, in which the time and time scale are defined implicitly, inferred from the observed position of an astronomical object via the dynamical theory of its motion.
  2. a modern relativistic coordinate time scale, implemented by the JPL ephemeris time argument Teph, in a series of numerically integrated Development Ephemerides. Among them is the DE405 ephemeris in widespread current use. The time scale represented by Teph is closely related to, but distinct from, the TCB time scale currently adopted as a standard by the IAU.

The Julian calendar, proposed by Julius Caesar in AUC 708, was a reform of the Roman calendar. It took effect on 1 January AUC 709 , by edict. It was designed with the aid of Greek mathematicians and astronomers such as Sosigenes of Alexandria.

The Revised Julian calendar, also known as the Milanković calendar, or, less formally, new calendar, is a calendar proposed by the Serbian scientist Milutin Milanković in 1923, which effectively discontinued the 340 years of divergence between the naming of dates sanctioned by those Eastern Orthodox churches adopting it and the Gregorian calendar that has come to predominate worldwide. This calendar was intended to replace the ecclesiastical calendar based on the Julian calendar hitherto in use by all of the Eastern Orthodox Church. From 1 March 1600 through 28 February 2800, the Revised Julian calendar aligns its dates with the Gregorian calendar, which was proclaimed in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII for adoption by the Christian world. The calendar has been adopted by the Orthodox churches of Constantinople, Albania, Alexandria, Antioch, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, America, and Romania.

Second SI unit of time

The second is the base unit of time in the International System of Units (SI), commonly understood and historically defined as 186400 of a day – this factor derived from the division of the day first into 24 hours, then to 60 minutes and finally to 60 seconds each. Analog clocks and watches often have sixty tick marks on their faces, representing seconds, and a "second hand" to mark the passage of time in seconds. Digital clocks and watches often have a two-digit seconds counter. The second is also part of several other units of measurement like meters per second for speed, meters per second per second for acceleration, and cycles per second for frequency.

Terrestrial Time (TT) is a modern astronomical time standard defined by the International Astronomical Union, primarily for time-measurements of astronomical observations made from the surface of Earth. For example, the Astronomical Almanac uses TT for its tables of positions (ephemerides) of the Sun, Moon and planets as seen from Earth. In this role, TT continues Terrestrial Dynamical Time, which succeeded ephemeris time (ET). TT shares the original purpose for which ET was designed, to be free of the irregularities in the rotation of Earth.

Year Orbital period of the Earth around the Sun

A year is the orbital period of a planetary body, for example, the Earth, moving in its orbit around the Sun. Due to the Earth's axial tilt, the course of a year sees the passing of the seasons, marked by change in weather, the hours of daylight, and, consequently, vegetation and soil fertility. In temperate and subpolar regions around the planet, four seasons are generally recognized: spring, summer, autumn and winter. In tropical and subtropical regions, several geographical sectors do not present defined seasons; but in the seasonal tropics, the annual wet and dry seasons are recognized and tracked.

The Julian day is the continuous count of days since the beginning of the Julian period, and is used primarily by astronomers, and in software for easily calculating elapsed days between two events.

A time standard is a specification for measuring time: either the rate at which time passes or points in time or both. In modern times, several time specifications have been officially recognized as standards, where formerly they were matters of custom and practice. An example of a kind of time standard can be a time scale, specifying a method for measuring divisions of time. A standard for civil time can specify both time intervals and time-of-day.

The light-second is a unit of length useful in astronomy, telecommunications and relativistic physics. It is defined as the distance that light travels in free space in one second, and is equal to exactly 299,792,458 metres (983,571,056 ft).

In astronomy, an epoch or reference epoch is a moment in time used as a reference point for some time-varying astronomical quantity. It is useful for the celestial coordinates or orbital elements of a celestial body, as they are subject to perturbations and vary with time. These time-varying astronomical quantities might include, for example, the mean longitude or mean anomaly of a body, the node of its orbit relative to a reference plane, the direction of the apogee or aphelion of its orbit, or the size of the major axis of its orbit.

The astronomical system of units, formerly called the IAU (1976) System of Astronomical Constants, is a system of measurement developed for use in astronomy. It was adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1976 via Resolution No. 1, and has been significantly updated in 1994 and 2009.

Decimal time

Decimal time is the representation of the time of day using units which are decimally related. This term is often used specifically to refer to the time system used in France for a few years beginning in 1792 during the French Revolution, which divided the day into 10 decimal hours, each decimal hour into 100 decimal minutes and each decimal minute into 100 decimal seconds, as opposed to the more familiar UTC time standard, which divides the day into 24 hours, each hour into 60 minutes and each minute into 60 seconds.

Unit of time Measurement unit for time

A unit of time or midst unit is any particular time interval, used as a standard way of measuring or expressing duration. The base unit of time in the International System of Units (SI) and by extension most of the Western world, is the second, defined as about 9 billion oscillations of the caesium atom. The exact modern definition, from the National Institute of Standards and Technology is: "The duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom."

In astronomy, an equinox is either of two places on the celestial sphere at which the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator. Although there are two intersections of the ecliptic with the celestial equator, by convention, the equinox associated with the Sun's ascending node is used as the origin of celestial coordinate systems and referred to simply as "the equinox". In contrast to the common usage of spring/vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the celestial coordinate system equinox is a direction in space rather than a moment in time.

The Gregorian calendar is the calendar used in most of the world. It was introduced in October 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII as a minor modification of the Julian calendar, reducing the average year from 365.25 days to 365.2425 days, and adjusting for the drift in the 'tropical' or 'solar' year that the inaccuracy had caused during the intervening centuries.

Light-year Unit of length, the distance that light travels in one year; ~10^13 km

The light-year is a unit of length used to express astronomical distances and is equivalent to about 9.46 trillion kilometres (9.46×1012 km) or 5.88 trillion miles (5.88×1012 mi). As defined by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a light-year is the distance that light travels in vacuum in one Julian year (365.25 days). Because it includes the word "year", the term light-year is sometimes misinterpreted as a unit of time.

A tropical year is the time that the Sun takes to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons, as seen from Earth; for example, the time from vernal equinox to vernal equinox, or from summer solstice to summer solstice. This differs from the time it takes Earth to complete one full orbit around the Sun as measured with respect to the fixed stars by about 20 minutes because of the precession of the equinoxes.

Lunar month Time between successive new moons

In lunar calendars, a lunar month is the time between two successive syzygies of the same type: new moons or full moons. The precise definition varies, especially for the beginning of the month.


  1. P. Kenneth Seidelmann, ed., The explanatory supplement to the Astronomical Almanac, (Mill Valley, Cal.: University Science Books, 1992), pp. 8, 696, 698–9, 704, 716, 730.
  2. 1 2 "Measuring the Universe". International Astronomical Union . Retrieved March 22, 2012.
  3. 1 2 International Astronomical Union. "Recommendations Concerning Units". Archived from the original on February 16, 2007. Retrieved February 18, 2007. Reprinted from the "IAU Style Manual" by G.A. Wilkinson, Comm. 5, in IAU Transactions XXB (1987).
  4. Harold Rabinowitz and Suzanne Vogel, The manual of scientific style (Burlington, MA: Academic Press, 2009) 369.
  5. 1 2 Simon Newcomb, Tables of the Four Inner Planets, vol. 6 of Astronomical Papers Prepared for the Use of the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac (Washington, DC: 1898), pp. 10–11.