solar time, time defined by the position of the sun. The solar day is the time it takes for the sun to return to the same meridian in the sky. Local solar time is measured by a sundial. When the center of the sun is on an observer's meridian, the observer's local solar time is zero hours (noon). Because the earth moves with varying speed in its orbit at different times of the year and because the plane of the earth's equator is inclined to its orbital plane, the length of the solar day is different depending on the time of year. It is more convenient to define time in terms of the average of local solar time. Such time, called mean solar time, may be thought of as being measured relative to an imaginary sun (the mean sun) that lies in the earth's equatorial plane and about which the earth orbits with constant speed. Every mean solar day is of the same length. The difference between the local solar time and the mean solar time at a given location is known as the equation of time. Tables used by navigators list the equation of time for different times of year so that an observer can calculate his mean solar time from his local solar time (found by determining the sun's hour angle). Mean solar time is the basis for civil time and standard time.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.