As astronomers, we're used to watching objects move across the sky. But much of this is due to the apparent movement of the celestial sphere when seen from Earth.

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Take the stars, for example. You can see them moving across the night sky in a matter of hours, but this is of course down to the fact that Earth is spinning while it orbits the Sun.

The stars aren't really speeding across the sky. They just appear to be, from our perspective.

A composite image showing the apparent reversal of Mars's movement in the night sky. Credit: Pete Lawrence
A composite image showing the apparent reversal of Mars's movement in the night sky. Credit: Pete Lawrence

The same can be said for the planets too. But once in a while, if you observe the movements of the planets along the ecliptic, you might notice one suddenly appearing to stop, then begining to move backwards.

We call this apparent backwards movement 'retrograde motion'.

The movement of the planets

The variability of Betelgeuse is seen in this image captured by Amanda Cross: a composite showing Betelgeuse's apparent movement across the sky. Credit: Amanda Cross.
A composite showing star Betelgeuse's apparent movement across the sky. Credit: Amanda Cross.

The planets normally move from west to east relative to the stars.

If you look skywards at the same time of night on two different nights, you’ll notice that the planets have moved to the east.

This is because all the planets, as viewed from above, orbit the Sun in an anticlockwise direction. This is known as normal or direct motion.

It’s generally only comets, with eccentric orbits, that travel around the Sun in a clockwise, or retrograde, direction.

This composite of Comet NEOWISE was captured over Dizin, Iran, by Reyhaneh Valipour on 21 July 2020. Reyhaneh used a Nikon D7100 DSLR, Samyang 16 mm f/2.0 lens.
A composite of Comet NEOWISE captured over Dizin, Iran, by Reyhaneh Valipour on 21 July 2020.

But every once in a while a planet will also appear to move in a retrograde direction.

Its motion will first appear to slow down, then stop for a short while, and then start up again, but in the opposite, westward direction.

Eventually it will stop again and resume its eastward movement.

Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer who first suggested that the Sun and not the Earth was at the centre of the Solar System, reasoned that planets further away from the Sun would move more slowly than closer ones.

As a faster planet overtakes Earth, its motion against the stars, as seen from Earth, reverses.

The same explanation works for the outer planets too, only now it is the Earth that overtakes the other planet.

How big is our Solar System? credit: MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Copernicus's work put the Sun at the centre of the Solar System. Credit: MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Before Copernicus, astronomers had difficulty in marrying their belief that the Earth was the centre of the Solar System with the retrograde motion of the planets.

Their solution involved the planets each moving in mini-orbits called epicycles, while they travelled around the Earth on their main orbits.

The combined effect of these two motions would occasionally produce a westward motion of the planet when viewed from Earth.

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This article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

Authors

Garry E. Hunt is a former NASA Scientist who was a co-host on BBC's The Sky at Night for over 20 years.
Garry HuntScientist

Garry E. Hunt is a former NASA Scientist who was a co-host on BBC's The Sky at Night for over 20 years.

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