To make one complete rotation in 24 hours, a point near the equator of the Earth must move at close to 1000 miles per hour (1600 km/hr). The speed gets less as you move north, but it’s still a good clip throughout the United States. Because gravity holds us tight to the surface of our planet, we move with the Earth and don’t notice its rotation.
As the Earth turns, with faster motion at the equator and slower motion near the poles, great wheels of water and air circulate in the northern and southern hemisphere. For example, the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Great Britain, and makes England warmer and wetter than it otherwise would be, is part of the great wheel of water in the North Atlantic Ocean. The wheel (or gyre) that the Gulf Stream is part of contains more water than all the rivers of the world put together. It is circulated by the energy of our turning planet.
In addition to spinning on its axis, the Earth also revolves around the Sun. We are approximately 93 million miles (150 million km) from the Sun, and at that distance, it takes us one year (365 days) to go around once. The full path of the Earth’s orbit is close to 600 million miles (970 million km). To go around this immense circle in one year takes a speed of 107000 km/hr. At this speed, you could get from San Francisco to Washington DC in 3 minutes. As they say on TV, please don’t try going this fast without serious adult supervision.
The Sun’s Motion
Our Sun is just one star among several hundred billion others that together make up the Milky Way Galaxy. This is our immense “island of stars” and within it, each star is itself moving. Any planet orbiting a star will share its motion through the Galaxy with it. Stars, as we shall see, can be moving in a random way, just “milling about” in their neighborhoods, and also in organized ways, moving around the center of the Galaxy.
If we want to describe the motion of a star like our Sun among all the other stars, we run up against a problem. We usually define motion by comparing the moving object to something at rest. A car moves at 60 miles per hour relative to a reference post attached to the Earth, such as the highway sign, for example. But if all the stars in the Galaxy are moving, what could be the “reference post” to which we can compare its motion?
Astronomers define a local standard of rest in our section of the Galaxy by the average motion of all the stars in our neighborhood.
(Note that in using everyday words, such as “local” and “neighborhood”, we do a disservice to the mind-boggling distances involved. Even the nearest star is over 25 thousand billion miles (40 thousand billion km) away. It’s only that the Galaxy is so immense, that compared to its total size, the stars we use to define our Sun’s motion do seem to be in the “neighborhood.”)
Relative to the local standard of rest, our Sun and the Earth are moving at about 43,000 miles per hour (70,000 km/hr) roughly in the direction of the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra. This speed is not unusual for the stars around us and is our “milling around” speed in our suburban part of the Galaxy.
Orbiting the Galaxy
It takes our Sun approximately 225 million years to make the trip around our Galaxy. This is sometimes called our “galactic year”. Since the Sun and the Earth first formed, about 20 galactic years have passed; we have been around the Galaxy 20 times. On the other hand, in all of recorded human history, we have barely moved in our long path around the Milky Way.
How fast do we have to move to make it around the Milky Way in one galactic year? It’s a huge circle, and the speed with which the Sun has to move is an astounding 483,000 miles per hour (792,000 km/hr)! The Earth, anchored to the Sun by gravity, follows along at the same fantastic speed. (By the way, as fast as this speed is, it is still a long way from the speed limit of the universe—the speed of light. Light travels at the unimaginably fast pace of 670 million miles per hour or 1.09 billion km/hr.)
Moving Through the Universe
Now we want to finish up by looking at the motion of the entire Milky Way Galaxy through space. What can we compare its motion to — what is the right frame of reference? For a long time, astronomers were not sure how to answer this question. We could measure the motion of the Milky Way relative to a neighbor galaxy, but this galaxy is also moving. The universe is filled with great islands of stars (just like the Milky Way) and each of them is moving in its own way. No galaxy is sitting still! But then, a surprising discovery in the 1960s showed us a new way to think of our galaxy’s motion.
And how fast is the Milky Way Galaxy moving? The speed turns out to be an astounding 1.3 million miles per hour (2.1 million km/hr)! We are moving roughly in the direction on the sky that is defined by the constellations of Leo and Virgo. Although the reasons for this motion are not fully understood, astronomers believe that there is a huge concentration of matter in this direction.
So what do all the speeds add up to? If everything were perfectly aligned in the same direction, your final speed would be 1.9 million mi/hr (3 million km/hr).
So the next time someone in your family or group of friends calls you lazy for just sitting there, you can politely remark that, although it may look as if you are just sitting, you are actually moving at great speed around the Earth, around the Sun, around the Milky Way, and through the universe.