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Tropical year

A tropical year (also known as a solar year), for general purposes, 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. Because of the precession of the equinoxes, the seasonal cycle does not remain exactly synchronized with the position of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. As a consequence, the tropical year is about 20 minutes shorter than the time it takes Earth to complete one full orbit around the Sun as measured with respect to the fixed stars (the sidereal year).

Since antiquity, astronomers have progressively refined the definition of the tropical year. The entry for "year, tropical" in the Astronomical Almanac Online Glossary 2015 states:

An equivalent, more descriptive, definition is "The natural basis for computing passing tropical years is the mean longitude of the Sun reckoned from the precessionally moving equinox (the dynamical equinox or equinox of date). Whenever the longitude reaches a multiple of 360 degrees the mean Sun crosses the vernal equinox and a new tropical year begins". (Borkowski 1991, p. 122)

The mean tropical year in 2000 was 365.24219 ephemeris days; each ephemeris day lasting 86,400 SI seconds. This is 365.24217 mean solar days. (Richards, 2013, p. 587)

The word "tropical" comes from the Greek tropikos meaning "turn". (tropic, 1992) Thus, the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn mark the extreme north and south latitudes where the Sun can appear directly overhead, and where it appears to "turn" in its annual seasonal motion. Because of this connection between the tropics and the seasonal cycle of the apparent position of the Sun, the word "tropical" also lent its name to the "tropical year". The early Chinese, Hindus, Greeks, and others made approximate measures of the tropical year.


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