Ephemeris Time

Ephemeris time (ET), adopted as standard in 1952, was originally designed as an approach to a uniform time scale, to be freed from the effects of irregularity in the rotation of the earth, "for the convenience of astronomers and other scientists", for example for use in ephemerides of the Sun (as observed from the Earth), the Moon, and the planets. It was proposed in 1948 by G M Clemence.

From the time of John Flamsteed (1646–1719) it had been believed that the Earth's daily rotation was uniform. But in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with increasing precision of astronomical measurements, it began to be suspected, and was eventually established, that the rotation of the Earth (i.e. the length of the day) showed irregularities on short time scales, and was slowing down on longer time scales. The evidence was compiled by W de Sitter (1927) who wrote "If we accept this hypothesis, then the 'astronomical time', given by the earth's rotation, and used in all practical astronomical computations, differs from the 'uniform' or 'Newtonian' time, which is defined as the independent variable of the equations of celestial mechanics". De Sitter offered a correction to be applied to the mean solar time given by the Earth's rotation to get uniform time.

Other astronomers of the period also made suggestions for obtaining uniform time, including A Danjon (1929), who suggested in effect that observed positions of the Moon, Sun and planets, when compared with their well-established gravitational ephemerides, could better and more uniformly define and determine time.

Thus the aim developed, to provide a new time scale for astronomical and scientific purposes, to avoid the unpredictable irregularities of the mean solar time scale, and to replace for these purposes Universal Time (UT) and any other time scale based on the rotation of the Earth around its axis, such as sidereal time.

G M Clemence (1948) made a detailed proposal of this type based on the results of H Spencer Jones (1939). Clemence (1948) made it clear that his proposal was intended "for the convenience of astronomers and other scientists only" and that it was "logical to continue the use of mean solar time for civil purposes".

De Sitter and Clemence both referred to the proposal as 'Newtonian' or 'uniform' time. D Brouwer suggested the name 'ephemeris time'.

Following this, an astronomical conference held in Paris in 1950 recommended "that in all cases where the mean solar second is unsatisfactory as a unit of time by reason of its variability, the unit adopted should be the sidereal year at 1900.0, that the time reckoned in this unit be designated ephemeris time", and gave Clemence's formula (see Definition of ephemeris time (1952)) for translating mean solar time to ephemeris time.

The International Astronomical Union approved this recommendation at its 1952 general assembly. Practical introduction took some time (see Use of ephemeris time in official almanacs and ephemerides); ephemeris time (ET) remained a standard until superseded in the 1970s by further time scales (see Revision).

During the currency of ephemeris time as a standard, the details were revised a little. The unit was redefined in terms of the tropical year at 1900.0 instead of the sidereal year; and the standard second was defined first as 1/31556925.975 of the tropical year at 1900.0, and then as the slightly modified fraction 1/31556925.9747 instead, finally being redefined in 1967/8 in terms of the cesium atomic clock standard (see below).

Although ET is no longer directly in use, it leaves a continuing legacy. Its successor time scales, such as TDT, as well as the atomic time scale IAT (TAI), were designed with a relationship that "provides continuity with ephemeris time". ET was used for the calibration of atomic clocks in the 1950s. Close equality between the ET second with the later SI second (as defined with reference to the cesium atomic clock) has been verified to within 1 part in 1010.

In this way, decisions made by the original designers of ephemeris time influenced the length of today's standard SI second, and in turn, this has a continuing influence on the number of leap seconds which have been needed for insertion into current broadcast time scales, to keep them approximately in step with mean solar time.

Read more about Ephemeris Time:  Definition of Ephemeris Time (1952), Revision of Time Scales, JPL Ephemeris Time Argument Teph, Use of Ephemeris Time in Official Almanacs and Ephemerides, Redefinition of The Second

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