Why the Greenwich meridian moved
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Open AccessArticle
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DOI: 10.1007/s00190-015-0844-y
Abstract
In 1884, the International Meridian Conference recommended that the prime meridian “to be employed as a common zero of longitude and standard of time-reckoning throughout the globe” pass through the “centre of the transit instrument at the Observatory of Greenwich”. Today, tourists visiting its meridian line must walk east approximately 102 m before their satellite-navigation receivers indicate zero longitude. This offset can be accounted for by the difference between astronomical and geodetic coordinates—deflection of the vertical—in the east–west direction at Greenwich, and the imposed condition of continuity in astronomical time. The coordinates of satellite-navigation receivers are provided in reference frames that are related to the geocentric reference frame introduced by the Bureau International de l’Heure (BIH) in 1984. This BIH Terrestrial System provided the basis for orientation of subsequent geocentric reference frames, including all realizations of the World Geodetic System 1984 and the International Terrestrial Reference Frame. Despite the lateral offset of the original and current zero-longitude lines at Greenwich, the orientation of the meridian plane used to measure Universal Time has remained essentially unchanged.
Keywords
Greenwich meridian Deflection of the vertical Prime meridian ITRF zero meridian IERS Reference Meridian International Reference Meridian International Terrestrial Reference Frame Greenwich Mean Time1 The situation at Greenwich
In Sects. 2 and 3, the authors show that the deflection of the vertical (DoV) can account for the entire longitude shift at Greenwich. In Sect. 4, the authors also compare astrogeodetic and gravimetric DoVs and their uncertainties, using a recent global gravitational model, for a number of astronomical observatories that contributed to past determinations of UT1. This provides information about the overall orientation between the former (astronomical) and modern (geodetic) longitude systems. Because books for the general public (e.g., Malin and Stott 1989; Howse 1997; Jennings 1999; Dolan 2003; Murdin 2009), as well as the web sites of the UK’s National Maritime Museum (Sinclair 1997) and Wikipedia (IERS Reference Meridian 2014), either ignore the longitude offset at Greenwich, acknowledge it but do not assign a cause, or provide incorrect accounts, the authors also consider some of the conjectured explanations in Sect. 5.
2 Methods of determining longitude and Earth rotation
Traditional optical instruments for measuring Earth rotation included visual and photographic zenith tubes, circumzenithals, Danjon astrolabes, and transit telescopes, such as the Airy Transit Circle. These instruments measured local sidereal time by the passage of specially designated “clock stars” across a plane of reference established in part by the local direction of gravity. These measurements were realized with respect to the local vertical using a basin of mercury, and the astronomical latitudes and longitudes of the observatories were thus affected by local gravity, because their coordinates were determined from the same observations.
Because of significant discrepancies between the earliest radio time-signal broadcasts, the Bureau International de l’Heure (BIH) was established at the Paris Observatory in 1912 to help coordinate the national time bureaus and improve longitudes globally (Guinot 2000). For purposes of global timekeeping by the BIH, the Greenwich Observatory was superseded in 1929 by a statistical construct known as the “mean observatory”, of which Greenwich became one of many contributors. The formation of GMT, now called Universal Time, from this “mean observatory” involved adopted corrections to the contributed data and weights that could change annually (Feissel 1980). To maintain a continuous and consistent series of Universal Time, the BIH also assumed the responsibility for establishing and refining the terrestrial reference systems used for the analyses (Guinot 2000). The early BIH terrestrial reference frames were entirely based on astronomical coordinates (Mueller 1969).
Delays in the analysis of polar motion from the International Latitude Service (ILS) made it impractical for the BIH to correct Universal Time for the motion of the rotational pole until the middle of the twentieth century (Guinot 2000). Universal Time observed from a given observatory was designated UT0, whereas the distributed astronomical time scale corrected for polar motion became known as UT1. After the BIH adopted various reference poles of different epochs during the 1950s and 1960s (Robbins 1967), the BIH standardized on the average ILS pole from 1900–1905—known as the Conventional International Origin—as part of an update to celestial and terrestrial reference systems. To preserve the continuity of UT1–UT0 for contributing stations within this new “1968 BIH System”, the adopted longitudes of observatories were systematically adjusted for the change of pole. Although the Airy Transit Circle was no longer operational as a BIH station, its astronomical longitude would have changed from zero to 0.2927\({''}\)W (about 6 m) within this new system (MacDonald 1985; Schmid 1974).
Beginning in 1973, the BIH began incorporating estimates of polar motion from the U.S. Navy TRANSIT (satellite Doppler) navigation system into its own processes (Guinot 1979). Other experimental techniques, such as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), connected-element radio interferometry, and lunar laser ranging (LLR) were gradually introduced along with the traditional optical measurements to estimate UT1. By 1984, the BIH discounted optical astrometry completely, and established a new terrestrial coordinate system designated as the “BIH Terrestrial System”, or BTS 84 (BIH 1985). This system was based on weighted solutions of Earth-orientation parameters from analysis centers and networks of VLBI, SLR and LLR geodetic stations that were independent of the former network of optical systems (Boucher and Altamimi 1985, 1986). In constructing BTS 84, the solution of network orientation (and thus its corresponding meridian of zero longitude) was constrained to match the ensemble of Earth-orientation measurements made from 1980 through 1983 relative to atomic timekeeping. Thus, the series of UT1 determinations based on non-traditional techniques maintained continuity with the former series dominated by optical astrometry (within the uncertainty of the optical measurements).
By 1988, the BIH and the International Polar Motion Service (successor to the ILS) were both replaced by the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS) (Wilkins 2000), which assumed responsibility for maintaining the terrestrial and celestial reference frames consistent with the Earth-orientation parameters it published routinely. The subsequent terrestrial reference frames of the IERS—in particular, the various realizations of the International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF)—preserve the orientations relative to the reference meridian of the BTS (see Jekeli 2006, pp. 3–14). Modern geodetic reference frames, such as the ITRF, are defined by the Cartesian position and velocity coordinates of an ensemble of stations in three dimensions. Within this context, the corresponding reference (zero) meridian is the Earth-fixed X–Z plane, where longitude is measured around the Z-axis eastward from that plane. The IERS Conventions (IERS 2010) recommend the term ‘ITRF zero meridian’ for this plane, although the terms ‘IERS Reference Meridian’ and ‘International Reference Meridian’ (IRM) are also in use.
3 Astrogeodetic and gravimetric DoV determination
The authors used the EGM2008 spherical harmonic coefficients to degree 2190, and calculated the deflections at Greenwich via harmonic synthesis, to obtain \(\xi _\mathrm{grav}\) = 2.156\(''\) and \(\eta _\mathrm{grav} \cdot \) sec \(\varphi \) = 5.502\(''\) assuming zero elevation, a result which agrees with the estimates of 2.15\(''\) and 5.51\(''\) made by Ekman and Agren (2010) via numerical differentiation of the gridded version of the EGM2008 geoid. The results predict an astronomical longitude of \(\varLambda _\mathrm{grav}\) = 00\(^{\circ }\) 00\('\)00.19\(''\)E for the Airy Transit Circle. Within the estimated EGM2008 commission error in \(\eta _\mathrm{grav}\)sec \(\varphi \), \(\pm \) 0.47\(''\) 1\(\sigma \) (see also Pavlis et al. 2012, section 5), the predicted astronomical longitude is in good agreement with its originally adopted value of zero.
4 Astrogeodetic and gravimetric DoV comparisons
The astrogeodetic deflection \(\eta _\mathrm{astro}\) from Eq. (2b) can be expected to agree with its corresponding gravimetric value \(\eta _\mathrm{grav}\) only if the astronomical and geodetic origins of longitude are parallel planes. This condition is not guaranteed in principle (see also Tscherning 1986), but it can be tested at surface points where gravimetric determinations of \(\eta \) have been made, and where astronomical and geodetic longitudes \(\varLambda \) and \(\lambda \) are both determined. The difference \(\Delta \eta \) = \(\eta _\mathrm{astro}\) – \(\eta _\mathrm{grav}\) includes errors in the determination of the coordinates, as well as errors of commission and omission in the gravimetric deflection. For a meaningful test, these errors should be small relative to the magnitude of any supposed misalignment of the longitude origin.
A slightly different, but equivalent, approach follows from Ekman and Agren (2010), who “synthesized” astronomical coordinates per Eq. (4), and then compared values of \(\varLambda _\mathrm{grav}\) to the historical astronomical longitudes (\(\varLambda \)). For fundamental observatories at Stockholm, København, and Greenwich, their results indicated differences between \(\varLambda \) and \(\varLambda _\mathrm{grav}\) of 0.4\(''\), 0.9\(''\), and 0.2\(''\), respectively. Here, the authors extended this approach by correcting the conventional BIH coordinates of astronomical stations before 1984 (1968 BIH System) for local deflection, and then comparing the corrected coordinates to their geodetic coordinates with respect to WGS 84. If the origin for longitude was the same both before and after 1984, then the longitude residual \(\varLambda \) – \(\varLambda _\mathrm{grav}\) for each BIH optical station should be small relative to the uncertainty of its estimated deflection, \(\sigma _{\eta \cdot \mathrm{sec}\,\varphi }\).
EGM2008-implied versus Astrogeodetic longitude differences for BIH-contributing optical stations
BIH code |
Annual reports |
Location |
\(\varphi \) |
\(\lambda \) |
H (m) |
\(\varLambda -\lambda \) (\(^{\prime \prime }\)) |
\(\eta \) sec \(\varphi \)(\(^{\prime \prime }\)) |
\(\sigma _\eta \,\, \mathrm{sec} \varphi \)(\(^{\prime \prime }\)) |
\(\varLambda -\Lambda _\mathrm{grav } \)(\(^{\prime \prime }\)) |
---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
G |
Greenwich |
51\(^{\circ }\)28\(^{\prime }\)40.1\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
0\(^{\circ }\)00\(^{\prime }\)05.3\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
41 |
5.3 |
4.9 |
0.47 |
0.4 | |
BLI |
68–83 |
Belgrade |
44\(^{\circ }\)48\(^{\prime }\)00.5\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
20\(^{\circ }\)30\(^{\prime }\)46.9\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
244 |
1.0 |
1.5 |
1.44 |
\(-\)0.5 |
BOI\(^\mathrm{c}\) |
68–74 |
Borowiec |
52\(^{\circ }\)16\(^{\prime }\)30.7\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
17\(^{\circ }\)04\(^{\prime }\)29.7\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
77 |
7.1 |
7.4 |
0.72 |
\(-\)0.3 |
BOJ\(^\mathrm{c}\) |
72–81 |
52\(^{\circ }\)16\(^{\prime }\)30.7\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
17\(^{\circ }\)04\(^{\prime }\)28.9\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
77 |
7.6 |
7.4 |
0.2 | ||
BG\(^\mathrm{b}\) |
68–83 |
Borowa Góra |
52\(^{\circ }\)28\(^{\prime }\)31.9\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
21\(^{\circ }\)02\(^{\prime }\)05.1\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
104 |
8.6 |
8.9 |
0.77 |
\(-\)0.3 |
BS\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
68–73 |
Besançon |
47\(^{\circ }\)14\(^{\prime }\)53.0\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
5\(^{\circ }\)59\(^{\prime }\)21.3\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
307 |
\(-\)6.3 |
\(-\)6.4 |
0.67 |
0.1 |
CT\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
68–69 |
Cape Town |
33\(^{\circ }\)56\(^{\prime }\)05.3\(^{\prime \prime }\)S |
18\(^{\circ }\)28\(^{\prime }\)39.0\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
9 |
1.2 |
\(-\)0.4 |
0.66 |
1.6 |
G\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
68–83 |
Herstmonceux |
50\(^{\circ }\)52\(^{\prime }\)21.2\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
0\(^{\circ }\)20\(^{\prime }\)14.5\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
27 |
1.7 |
1.5 |
0.44 |
0.2 |
GRA\(^\mathrm{a, \mathrm c}\) |
71–77 |
Grasse |
43\(^{\circ }\)45\(^{\prime }\)7.26\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
6\(^{\circ }\)55\(^{\prime }\)25.09\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
1271 |
10.9 |
12.2 |
0.88 |
\(-\)1.3 |
GRB |
79–80 | ||||||||
GRC |
79–80 | ||||||||
MA |
68–83 |
Moscow Astr. |
55\(^{\circ }\)42\(^{\prime }\)04.8\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
37\(^{\circ }\)32\(^{\prime }\)30.6\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
191 |
9.6 |
9.2 |
1.81 |
0.4 |
MAP |
71–83 |
55\(^{\circ }\)42\(^{\prime }\)02.2\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
37\(^{\circ }\)32\(^{\prime }\)22.5\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
189 |
9.6 |
9.2 |
0.4 | ||
MS\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
68–83 |
Mt. Stromlo |
35\(^{\circ }\)19\(^{\prime }\)15.4\(^{\prime \prime }\)S |
149\(^{\circ }\)00\(^{\prime }\)23.07\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
761 |
\(-\)4.4 |
\(-\)4.5 |
0.77 |
0.1 |
NK |
68–83 |
Nikolaiev |
46\(^{\circ }\)58\(^{\prime }\)19.4\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
31\(^{\circ }\)58\(^{\prime }\)25.2\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
51 |
2.3 |
4.5 |
0.78 |
\(-\)2.2 |
O\(^\mathrm{d}\) |
68–70 |
Ottawa |
45\(^{\circ }\)23\(^{\prime }\)35.7\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
75\(^{\circ }\)42\(^{\prime }\)52.9\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
85 |
\(-\)6.3 |
\(-\)5.1 |
0.61 |
\(-\)1.2 |
OJP\(^\mathrm{b}\) |
75–83 |
Ondřejov |
49\(^{\circ }\)54\(^{\prime }\)50.4\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
14\(^{\circ }\)47\(^{\prime }\)01.2\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
532 |
8.1 |
7.1 |
0.90 |
1.0 |
OS |
71–83 |
Ottawa Shirley |
45\(^{\circ }\)24\(^{\prime }\)00.7\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
75\(^{\circ }\)55\(^{\prime }\)08.3\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
72 |
\(-\)4.5 |
\(-\)4.2 |
0.60 |
\(-\)0.3 |
PA\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
68–83 |
Paris |
48\(^{\circ }\)50\(^{\prime }\)08.6\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
2\(^{\circ }\)20\(^{\prime }\)13.5\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
61 |
2.0 |
2.3 |
0.47 |
\(-\)0.3 |
PAN\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
70–72 |
Paris-Nord |
48\(^{\circ }\)50\(^{\prime }\)09.7\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
2\(^{\circ }\)20\(^{\prime }\)13.3\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
62 |
2.0 |
2.3 |
\(-\)0.3 | |
PTA\(^\mathrm{a,c}\) |
68–83 |
Potsdam |
52\(^{\circ }\)22\(^{\prime }\)48.5\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
13\(^{\circ }\)03\(^{\prime }\)53.9\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
91 |
6.5 |
6.4 |
0.56 |
0.1 |
PTQ\(^\mathrm{a,c}\) |
80–83 |
52\(^{\circ }\)22\(^{\prime }\)48.5\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
13\(^{\circ }\)03\(^{\prime }\)53.9\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
91 |
6.5 |
6.4 |
0.1 | ||
PTJ\(^\mathrm{a,c}\) |
68–74 |
52\(^{\circ }\)22\(^{\prime }\)48.1\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
13\(^{\circ }\)03\(^{\prime }\)53.6\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
91 |
6.8 |
6.4 |
0.4 | ||
PTP\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
75–82 |
Potsdam |
52\(^{\circ }\)24\(^{\prime }\)18.1\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
13\(^{\circ }\)06\(^{\prime }\)11.2\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
72 |
6.8 |
6.7 |
0.55 |
0.1 |
PUG\(^\mathrm{a,d}\) |
71–83 |
Pulkovo |
59\(^{\circ }\)46\(^{\prime }\)12.2\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
30\(^{\circ }\)19\(^{\prime }\)34.3\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
78 |
4.2 |
4.0 |
1.43 |
0.2 |
PUH\(^\mathrm{a,d}\) |
72–83 | ||||||||
PYD\(^\mathrm{b}\) |
70–83 |
Pecný |
49\(^{\circ }\)54\(^{\prime }\)50.5\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
14\(^{\circ }\)47\(^{\prime }\)12.1\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
549 |
8.4 |
8.1 |
0.90 |
0.3 |
RCA |
68–78 |
Richmond |
25\(^{\circ }\)36\(^{\prime }\)50.8\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
80\(^{\circ }\)23\(^{\prime }\)03.0\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
8 |
7.2 |
7.8 |
0.42 |
\(-\)0.6 |
BIH code |
Annual reports |
Location |
\(\varphi \) |
\(\lambda \) |
H (m) |
\(\varLambda -\lambda \) (\(^{\prime \prime }\)) |
\(\eta \) sec \(\varphi \)(\(^{\prime \prime }\)) |
\(\sigma _\eta \,\, \mathrm{sec} \varphi \)(\(^{\prime \prime }\)) |
\(\varLambda -\Lambda _\mathrm{grav } \)(\(^{\prime \prime }\)) |
---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
RCP |
74–83 |
25\(^{\circ }\)36\(^{\prime }\)50.4\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
80\(^{\circ }\)23\(^{\prime }\)02.9\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
8 |
7.4 |
7.8 |
\(-\)0.4 | ||
SFA\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
70–83 |
San Fernando |
36\(^{\circ }\)27\(^{\prime }\)56.8\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
6\(^{\circ }\)12\(^{\prime }\)18.0\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
25 |
0.7 |
\(-\)0.3 |
0.44 |
1.0 |
SFI\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
68 |
36\(^{\circ }\)27\(^{\prime }\)55.0\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
6\(^{\circ }\)12\(^{\prime }\)20.2\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
25 |
1.0 |
\(-\)0.3 |
1.3 | ||
SJ\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
70–83 |
San Juan |
31\(^{\circ }\)30\(^{\prime }\)34.0\(^{\prime \prime }\)S |
68\(^{\circ }\)37\(^{\prime }\)25.6\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
705 |
14.5 |
14.4 |
1.38 |
0.1 |
SP\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
68–72 |
San Paulo |
23\(^{\circ }\)39\(^{\prime }\)08.7\(^{\prime \prime }\)S |
46\(^{\circ }\)37\(^{\prime }\)20.6\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
803 |
\(-\)1.0 |
0.3 |
1.58 |
\(-\)1.3 |
TFA\(^\mathrm{b}\) |
81–83 |
Rio Grande |
53\(^{\circ }\)47\(^{\prime }\)08.5\(^{\prime \prime }\)S |
67\(^{\circ }\)45\(^{\prime }\)03.8\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
19 |
\(-\)1.1 |
0.6 |
1.02 |
\(-\)1.7 |
UA\(^\mathrm{a,b}\) |
68–73 |
Uccle |
50\(^{\circ }\)47\(^{\prime }\)50.0\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
4\(^{\circ }\)21\(^{\prime }\)31.6\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
102 |
\(-\)3.8 |
\(-\)4.7 |
0.52 |
0.9 |
UB\(^\mathrm{a}\) |
71–72 |
50\(^{\circ }\)47\(^{\prime }\)52.2\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
4\(^{\circ }\)21\(^{\prime }\)33.2\(^{\prime \prime }\)E |
104 |
\(-\)4.5 |
\(-\)4.7 |
0.2 | ||
W\(^\mathrm{a,b,d}\) |
68–83 |
Washington |
38\(^{\circ }\)55\(^{\prime }\)17.1\(^{\prime \prime }\)N |
77\(^{\circ }\)04\(^{\prime }\)01.4\(^{\prime \prime }\)W |
86 |
4.4 |
4.7 |
0.46 |
\(-\)0.3 |
For the analysis, astronomical longitudes were adopted from BIH annual reports between 1968 and 1983, except that of Washington (W), which was adopted from Hughes et al. (1975). Small annual and semi-annual coordinate corrections estimated by BIH, which could have been due to a combination of systematic errors (errors in catalogued star positions, instrumentation, and/or adopted longitude), were ignored. The final computation of \(\eta _\mathrm{grav}\) used station elevations interpolated from the ERTM2160 data set^{1} (Hirt et al. 2014), and included the ERTM2160 component of \(\eta \) to reduce the EGM2008 omission errors. However, neglecting the effect of elevation, and the effect of ERTM2160 on \(\eta \), does not appreciably change the overall statistics, as only a few stations greatly exceed the average elevation of approximately 200 m, or experience highly variable terrain.
For all BIH stations investigated, the longitude differences \(\varLambda \) – \(\varLambda _\mathrm{grav}\) were found to be within \(\pm \)3 \(\sigma \) of the EGM2008 commission error estimate (Table 1). The weighted average of \(\varLambda \) – \(\varLambda _\mathrm{grav}\) was statistically no different than zero (0.06\(''\) \(\pm \) 0.14\(''\) 1 \(\sigma \)), the weights being the reciprocal values of the EGM2008-implied commission error variances of \(\eta _\mathrm{grav}~\)sec \(\varphi \). Both results support the current placement of zero longitude as being due to the local deflection of the vertical at Greenwich, with no change in orientation occurring at the time of changeover to the BTS 84.
5 Other conjectured explanations
The authors have also identified one internet article (Mautz 2004) suggesting DoV as a probable source for the offset observed with GPS from Airy’s meridian line. Nevertheless, the early research of Gebel and Matthews (1971) has fueled an increasingly popular opinion that APL’s choice of longitude reference for TRANSIT promulgated a 6\(''\) offset into subsequent global satellite datums, such as WGS 84 (IERS Reference Meridian 2014). In reality, the early geodetic reference frames of TRANSIT never influenced the longitudinal orientation of WGS 84; rather, WGS 84 was consistently oriented by the BIH directional origin for UT1 via BTS 84, a global datum independent of TRANSIT (BIH 1985, p. B-6, Table 3; Defense Mapping Agency 1987; Malys 1988). The latest realizations of WGS 84 are aligned with the ITRF established by the IERS (Wong et al. 2012; NGIA 2014), which also evolved from BTS 84.
Another conjecture for the longitude offset is that significant errors crept into the BIH timekeeping process gradually during the twentieth century. When the Airy Transit Circle began to experience noticeable problems due to its age, the British Time Service transitioned its timekeeping program to other, smaller transits after July, 1927 (Gething 1954). The Airy Transit Circle was already out of regular timekeeping service when the BIH began using its “mean observatory” to determine UT, so the lack of direct contribution has been theorized to have allowed zero longitude to drift away from Airy’s transit. However, the supplementary instruments at Greenwich were subject to the same vertical deflection, and continued to be assigned a conventional longitude of exactly zero by the BIH (BIH 1933, and subsequent), with their observations being adjusted for their longitude separation from Airy’s instrument. When the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) astronomical station was moved from Greenwich to Herstmonceux in 1957, its photographic zenith tube was assigned whatever conventional value of longitude gave the best continuity with the established time services. This would have eliminated the discontinuity normally expected with a change of instrument (Atkinson 1957). Although some of the processes used by the BIH were not transparent to users, any systematic shifts in the zero longitude were apparently limited to a few milliseconds in time at most (Mueller 1969; Guinot 2000). This level of reported accuracy is in contrast to the current 102 m offset, which would be more than \(^{1}/_{3}\) s in time.
Polar motion, which has been well measured since the late nineteenth century, cannot account for the shift of the prime meridian. The amplitude of the periodic part of polar motion is about 0.3 arc-second, and the drift of the mean rotational pole is currently about 0.5 arc-second/century toward the western hemisphere (IERS 2014). The effect of polar motion on the longitude at Greenwich is less than one arc-second. Crustal motion from plate tectonics is also much too small to explain the observed longitude difference. Britain and most of Europe are moving toward the northeast at about 3 cm/year (a longitude change of 0.1 arc-second/century) with respect to the WGS 84 terrestrial coordinate frame (Altamimi et al. 2012). The accumulated effect relative to other monitoring stations amounts to only a few meters since its designation as prime meridian in 1884.
Improvements in the fundamental celestial reference frame and in astronomical computations for positional astronomy were introduced in 1984 after 10 years of planning (Kaplan 1981 and references therein), but there is no evidence that these changes affected the geodetic longitude system now in use. These changes were generally of the order of one arc-second at the changeover date. Although small, the changes had the potential to affect UT1 determinations and, therefore, the longitude system of BTS 84. However, the International Astronomical Union specified that there be no change in the value or rate of UT1 due to the new scheme (IAU 1977, 1980), so that the conventional expression for sidereal time in terms of UT1 was modified to provide continuity in the UT1 determinations (Aoki et al. 1982).
6 Conclusion
Zero longitude is the terrestrial origin for Universal Time (UT1), a realization of mean solar time at Greenwich used to define the rotation angle of the Earth in space. The 102-m offset between the Airy Transit Circle and zero longitude indicated by a GNSS receiver is attributable to the fact that continuity in the UT1 time series was maintained in the BIH reference frames, as geodetic longitudes replaced astronomical longitudes when space-geodetic methods were introduced. This continuity condition constrained the BTS 84, and consequentially, the ITRF zero meridian plane, to be practically parallel to the orientation of the astronomical prime meridian through Airy’s instrument that is aligned to local gravity. Extended to infinity, these parallel meridian planes sweep past the same stars simultaneously, so that both planes indicate the same astronomical time (UT1). The difference between precise GNSS coordinates and astronomically determined coordinates everywhere remains a localized gravity effect due to the deflection of the vertical; thus, no systematic rotation of global longitudes occurred between the former astronomical system and the current geodetic system.
Because the value of the DoV at Greenwich and the continuity constraint on UT1 were the primary factors that influenced the current location of the ITRF zero meridian, the 1884 recommendation of a prime meridian based on the “Observatory in Greenwich” has been practically maintained to the present by passing the zero meridian plane through the center of mass of the Earth, rather than through the center of the Airy Transit Circle. Modern, high-resolution global gravitational models of the Earth confirm that the local slope of the geoid at Greenwich is of the proper sign and magnitude to support this interpretation, conclusive to within the accuracy of the deflection model (\(\pm \)0.5\(''\) 1 \(\sigma \) in longitude for the EGM2008 model).
Acknowledgments
The authors gratefully acknowledge personnel who assisted in identifying coordinates for various sites: Victor Abalakin, Devin J. Della-Rose, Rudolf Dvorak, Michael Feast, Sylvio Ferraz-Mello, Daniel Gambis, Enrico Gerlach, Ian Halliday, Jean Kovalevsky, Jan Krynski, Zinovy Malkin, Leslie Morrison, Craig Niemi, Paul Paquet, Elena Schilbach, and Miguel Vallejo. The authors also thank James Kindig, Dan Mullaney and Susan Cropp, for bringing certain historical publications to our attention, and David LeDoux, for his assistance with the ERTM2160 data sets. Finally, the authors are grateful to Dennis McCarthy, Zuheir Altamimi and an anonymous reviewer for valuable suggestions that improved this manuscript.
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