When you think about our world and our place in the Solar System, you very likely think about Earth, spinning on its axis, with the Moon orbiting around it, and with the entire Earth-Moon system orbiting the Sun.

But did you know that all of it — the Earth spinning on its axis, the Moon revolving around Earth, the Earth revolving around the Sun, and even the Sun spinning on its own axis — spins in the same direction? If you floated “above” the north pole of Earth, everything would rotate counterclockwise. It makes you wonder, as one of Jillian Scudder’s questioners did:

Do all planets rotate as they go around their stars? Do they all rotate in the same direction (e.g. clockwise or anticlockwise?) Or does it just depend on what started them rotating in the first place?

Image credit: Calvin J. Hamilton.

Image credit: Calvin J. Hamilton.

It’s a great question, and there’s a great Astroquizzical answer to go along with it!

Comments

  1. #1 Morgan
    March 31, 2015

    If we had a bird’s eye view of our solar system, where we’d flown into space “up” via the North Pole, and looked back down, most of the planets would be rotating counterclockwise — or from the West towards the East.

    What defines North/South and East/West here? If Venus rotates in the opposite direction to Earth, would we say that there the sun rises in the West and sets in the East? Or do we define the poles by the direction of rotation, so that Venus’ North Pole points the other way than Earth’s?

  2. #2 Michael Kelsey
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
    March 31, 2015

    @Morgan #1: In the quote from Ms. Scudder (Ethan’s guest author) above, she defines North based on the Earth (“[fly] into space ‘up’ via the North Pole”). It turns out that, for our solar system, that definition displays “clockwise” rotation for not just Earth, but for a majority of the planets and for the Sun. It also displays clockwise revolution for all the planets in orbit.

    For other planets (in the solar system), we define the poles such that the local “north” pole is the one with clockwise rotation (i.e., the Sun always rises in local east, except on Uranus where it rises in the north, I think 🙂 ).

  3. #3 Cherise Swanepoel
    South Africa
    March 31, 2015

    Another thing: the earth technically does not orbit the sun. The earth and the sun orbit each other around their center of mass. It is only due to the enormous difference in mass of the sun and the earth that we accept that the center of mass is the center off the sun.
    15000983

  4. #4 Michaela van Rooyen
    March 31, 2015

    Truly something to think about. If you for instance float above another planet, say Saturn, would it then look like the planets are turning in a different direction then when you are floating “above” the earth’s north pole?
    u15020216

  5. #5 Sean T
    March 31, 2015

    Michael,

    I would think it’s actually impossible for the rotation of the earth as seen from above the north pole to be anything other than “clockwise”. We make clock hands go clockwise precisely because that it the direction that the shadow in a sundial moves. It moves in that direction because of the direction of the earth’s rotation. If the earth rotated in the opposite sense, we would define the direction we now refer to as “counterclockwise” as being “clockwise” instead.

    Of course, the main point that the rotational sense of most objects in the universe remains, despite how we define our term “clockwise”.

  6. #6 David Andrews
    United States
    March 31, 2015

    I enjoy thinking of the ecliptic as a “fossil” reflection of our system’s accretion disc.

    Migrating gas giants would introduce enough gravitational turbulence to produce planetary billiards – a mechanism to knock a planet on it’s ear.

    In the time-lapse of the Sun above, I would really like to understand the nature of the banding seen on each side of the Sun’s equator where solar flairs tend to manifest.
    Is the mechanism driven by temperature or magnetism?

    Similar banding is displayed in the weather on Earth which I believe is a function of temperature, and of course on Jupiter where it’s fantastic speed of rotation probably factors in…?

  7. #7 David Andrews
    United States
    March 31, 2015

    I enjoy thinking of the ecliptic as a “fossil” reflection of our system’s accretion disc.

    Migrating gas giants would introduce enough gravitational turbulence to produce planetary billiards – a mechanism to knock a planet on it’s ear.

    In the time-lapse of the Sun above, I would really like to understand the nature of the banding seen on each side of the Sun’s equator where solar flares tend to manifest.
    Is the mechanism driven by temperature or magnetism?

    Similar banding is displayed in the weather on Earth which I believe is a function of temperature, and of course on Jupiter where it’s fantastic speed of rotation probably factors in…?

  8. #8 PJ
    Perth, west Oz
    March 31, 2015

    @#2 Mr Kelsey. Ms Scudders definition is correct, as in we rotate counterclockwise viewed from ‘north’. Uranus lies on its side (+98, or -82 degrees), therefore the sun remains facing its (respective) pole for approx. 42 years.

  9. #9 Vicki
    about 47 degrees north
    March 31, 2015

    I read an article a few months ago which made what seemed like a good case that Venus’ rotation was explained, not by a late impact, but by orbital resonance with the sun, modified slightly by the effects of the planet’s thick atmosphere. (“Seemed” because I don’t have enough math to check the work.)

    And now I wish I’d bookmarked that, but I didn’t think I’d want it again, and I don’t remember what series of links or questions got me there. Ethan? Gillian? Does this sound at all familiar?

  10. #10 PJ
    Perth, west Oz
    March 31, 2015

    @#5, SeanT
    The shadow upon the sun dial moves left to right (clockwise) simply because the sun moves east to west simply because the earth rotates anticlockwise looking from above the north pole. I think you will find clocks were designed this way for this simple reason of the shadow moving in a ‘clockwise’ motion.

  11. #11 Wow
    April 1, 2015

    What defines North/South and East/West here?

    The British Empire. Just like the definition of the meridian line.

    From the UK, the pole is “up” from the sun at our temperate latitude so we do our maps that way round. And since we spent a long time being masters of the sea with a huge empire, our colonies used the same maps as did our allies against France and Spain. Since those two lost their empires, and France was more a land power anyway, the British system became universal. For all the other powers it was still fine to have the same North since the sun did the same dance for them.

    If Australasia had did the conquering, we’d have North at the other end.

  12. #12 Sean T
    April 1, 2015

    Agreed, PJ. That was kind of my point. If the earth rotated in the opposite sense, then sundial shadows would move in the opposite direction. Clocks would likely have been designed to move in that direction, and the opposite rotational sense would now be referred to as “clockwise”.

    It is not possible for the earth’s rotation as seen from above the north pole to be anything but clockwise. That rotational sense is what defines the term “clockwise”.

  13. #13 Megan (u15031153)
    South Africa
    April 1, 2015

    Say that research tells us that all the planets do rotate or spin in the same direction. What would cause all the planets, of different sizes, to rotate this way?

  14. #14 Sarah J
    South Africa
    April 2, 2015

    The Earth rotates from the west towards the east, as viewed from the North Star or polestar Polaris and the Earth turns counter-clockwise. It is true that the earth does not just orbit the sun, but they both orbit due to their centre of mass. The rotation of the earth gives night and day however, is it possible for some planets to rotate without it having the effect of night and day, as on earth, due to its difference in size? Do other planets for example Neptune, also experience different seasons even though they may be very far from the sun? Thank you for your time! u15007473

  15. #15 Joshua Ndoli(u15401104)
    Gauteng, Johannesburg
    April 2, 2015

    Certain research states a theory that if the earth rotation axis slows down, it would result in the Earth’s gravity depleting, is it true that rotation axis of the earth plays an important variable in stabilizing gravitational force on earth?

  16. #16 T. Duvenage
    April 3, 2015

    It makes sense that a collision or collisions could have caused that Uranus is rotating on its side, but wouldn’t there be some kind of evidence because of the great impact to cause this? 15057357

  17. #17 Wow
    April 3, 2015

    What would cause all the planets, of different sizes, to rotate this way?

    Conservation of angular momentum. The accretion disk at the outside edge has to fall in to the galactic centre, speeding up and that on the inside edge move outward, slowing down.

    And then the accretion of stars and planets have the same issue within that rotating accretion disk.

  18. #18 darkgently
    Australia
    April 3, 2015

    I’m curious… what’s with the recent influx of commenters from South Africa signing their comments with an 8-digit number and sometimes a ‘u’? Is it some kind of school or university ID?

  19. #19 Wow
    April 3, 2015

    It may be the result of people posting from medium.com and an account on it.

  20. #20 E.Ndou
    South Africa
    April 3, 2015

    One thing to keep in mind is that the Sun an the planets around it share a relative gravitational field with each other. The centre of gravity is then focused on the sun and this basically makes all the planets including asteroids rotate in the same direction
    15171494

  21. #21 Joshua Ndoli ( u15401104)
    Gauteng, Johannesburg South Africa
    April 3, 2015

    One last question in reference to the angle of axis does it influence the gravitational force upon the planet…e.g greater the angle of axis ,greater the gravity?

    I have been researching on the topic but I am not getting accurate information! Just long explanations without accurate results.

  22. #22 Michael Kelsey
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
    April 3, 2015

    Ndoli #21: No, the rotational inclination doesn’t affect a planet’s gravity.

  23. #23 Ntokozo Dlamini
    Pretoria,South Africa
    April 3, 2015

    The Nebula Hypothesis explained extensively.The movements of the planets makes a lot of sense when you consider that they should follow the direction of the innermost(Sun). I have also followed on the two great collisions that changed the movements of Venus and Uranus,and I think although there is not much conviction from the astrophysicists’ theories,I find it sensible to conclude that indeed these collisions did occur.
    14148112

  24. #24 Mashaba FS-u13356004
    Pretoria-South Africa
    April 5, 2015

    @Ntokozo Dlamini:
    Do these planets rotate in the same direction?if they do, do they rotate in the same direction when following the Nebula Hypothesis?

  25. #25 jacobus du plessis, 15037909
    April 6, 2015

    It is the first time a heard about nebula hypothesis and it makes a sense to me. In the time-lapse of the Sun above, I would really like to understand the nature of the banding seen on each side of the Sun’s equator where solar flares tend to manifest.
    Is the mechanism driven by temperature or magnetism?

  26. #26 Kevin RK u14169046
    Great Zimbabwe Hotel
    April 6, 2015

    @ Mashaba they do rotate in the same direction actually most of these planets in this Solar System rotate in the same direction almost like as they orbit the Sun, which is as you know counter-clockwise as seen from above the Sun’s north pole, but the the exceptions i know of are Venus and Uranus, which rotate clockwise, though Uranus’s extreme axial tilt means there are differing conventions on which of its poles is “north”, and therefore whether it is rotating clockwise or anti-clockwise .but i do believe they follow the Nebula Hypothesis ….

  27. #27 u15162258
    Pretoria
    April 6, 2015

    Does it really matter if the planets do rotate in the same direction? What gets affected by the direction of the rotation?

  28. #28 15006680
    April 8, 2015

    #27 it is important that all the planets rotate in the same plane in order for them to be classified as bodies from our solar system. A perfect example is Pluto, which is no longer part of our solar system mainly because it did not orbit in the same plane as the other planets, hence dwarf planets.

  29. #29 sendra kawa
    pretoria
    April 13, 2015

    what makes the spinning of the earth on its axis and all the things that revolve on it to spin in the same direction and if there were to spin in different direction how would that change the whole universe we know today?
    15202722

  30. #30 Wow
    April 14, 2015

    Already been answered multiple times.

    If anyone out there is wondering why they get such short shrift from people when they’re asking questions, the above is why.

    Either they’re posting rubbish for some reason (paid astroturf companies may pay based on how many posts, not their content, therefore spamming is a job of piecework) or they never bother reading the answer when it’s there in front of them (maybe because they have to read stuff first rather than have it right where they happen to be looking).

    If you’re not going to read the information then ask a question answered in that piece, there’s no reason to answer the question either.

  31. #31 John R
    New Jersey, USA
    December 17, 2016

    Ok, I started reading this site to look for the answer to my question “By watching tv, with few exceptions, like in our own solar system, we always see planets, orbits, stars, and galaxies always moving in what has been described as a clockwise rotation. With these few exemptions, do all stars, galaxies and other universal objects use the same rotational direction and why?” But I’ve read so many inconsistencies or straight our wrong comments, I couldn’t help but say something, but I’ll limit myself to 2, for now. First #3 Cherise, though yes the earth and the sun do kinda orbit eachother around a respective center of gravity, but do to the relative difference in size, that point still falls within the circumference of the corona sphere. And still that is over simplified to a solar system that was just our sun and our planet, add the other 7 planets, dwarf planets, comets, meteors, etc and that “center of gravity”, becomes more like a center of mass, where that point changes based on the location of mass around the actual center of the solar system, which the excemption of a series events where 97% of ALL mass in our solar system ends up in the 36 degrees from that center, the sun’s orbital center falls within its own diameter, meaning that the generalization that we orbit the sun fits rather accurately.

    Second, #28 15006800, the plane of orbit has nothing to do with the classification of a planet vs dwarf planet. That is based on the mass of the object. Basically a solar orbiting mass large enough for gravity to crush it into at least a semi-spherical shape (do to centrifugal force no “round” object in space is perfectly spherical, not even the super massive black holes at the center of the galaxy. Centrifugal force makes the diameter from pole to pole shorter then the diameter at the equatorial center), but not large enough to clear its orbital neighborhood. We have 5 known dwarf planets in our solar system (estimates off over 200 are possible) , 2 in the meteor belt, 2 in the Kepler belt and one in the trans-neptunium object region. And only Pluto at the point is know to orbit “off-orbit”. Theoretically though, an orbiting body could orbit at a 90 degree angle to our known orbital plane and as long as it’s “round” and is large enough for its gravity to clear its orbital neighborhood by either ejecting or drawing in any near by debri, would still be a planet. Though an orbit like that would not be naturally created within our system and would most likely be a rogue planet captured by our suns gravitational influence. The major concern of any orbital mass not in the “normal” orbital plane, would be the chances of its gravitation influence would affect other masses in the balanced orbital plane, throughing off the balance, and the system into chaos.

  32. #32 John R
    New Jersey, USA
    December 17, 2016

    Sorry, I didn’t want to come off as mean or anything, just trying to ensure the most accurate information is available. I do apologize if I came off harsh, or mean or offensive to anyone

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