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Perihelion 2016

January 1, 2016 2 comments

At 2249 GMT on 2 January 2016 the Earth reaches perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun this year.

If that sounds confusing to you, and has you wondering why it’s so cold given that the Earth is at its closest to the Sun, then this belies (a) a northern-hemisphere-centric attitude (in the Southern Hemisphere it’s summer right now), and (b) a misunderstanding of what causes the seasons.

The Earth orbits the sun in a nearly circular orbit called an ellipse. The degree by which an orbit differs from a perfect circle is called the eccentricity, e. If e = 0 then the orbit is circular; if e = 1 then the orbit is parabolic, and therefore not gravitationally bound to the Sun.

The Earth’s orbital eccentricity is 0.0167, meaning that it is very nearly circular, with the short axis of the ellipse being around 96% the length of the long axis.
Thus, during perihelion Earth is 0.983AU from the Sun, while during aphelion (its furthest distance from the Sun, occurring this year on 4 July) Earth is 1.017AU from the Sun. (1AU = 1 astronomical unit = the average distance between the Earth and the Sun = 150 million km).

The seasons on Earth have really nothing to do with how close the Earth is to the Sun at different times of year. Indeed how could they, given that the difference in distance between closest and furthest approach is only a few per cent? The seasonal differences we experience are of course caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which is inclined by 23.5 degrees from the vertical.

This tilt means that, as Earth orbits the Sun, for six months of the year one hemisphere tips towards the Sun, so that it experiences longer days than nights, becoming most pronounced at midsummer, at which point the Sun reaches its highest in the sky at noon. Simultaneously the other hemisphere tips away from the Sun, and experiences shorter days than nights, becoming most pronounced at midwinter, on which day the Sun is at its lowest noontime altitude.

The further you are from the equator the more pronounced the seasonal effects. In fact equatorial countries don’t experience seasonal variations, while the poles experience extremes with six-month-long winters and summers. The timing of perihelion and aphelion relative to our seasons is entirely random. The fact the southern hemisphere midsummer (21 Dec) almost coincides with perihelion (2 Jan) is simply that; a coincidence. Given that fact, there is no reason to be surprised that perihelion occurs so close to northern hemisphere midwinter: it has to happen some time and it’s a coincidence that it happens to occur within two weeks of midwinter / midsummer.

Categories: Time and Date

Morning Conjunction: Venus and Jupiter, August 2014

On Monday morning, 18 August 2014, in the eastern sky before sunrise you’ll see a very close conjunction of the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter.

They’ve been shining brightly in the pre-dawn sky for a while now, but as they trace out their separate orbits around the Sun they appear to move relative to one another, Venus the faster of the two. And they’re getting closer every day, until on Monday 18 August they’ll be at their closest, only 12 arcminutes apart, about one third of the diameter of the Moon.

This is closest conjunction in 15 years, and will be a very striking sight in the morning sky, but you’ll need to be up and about early to see it, about an hour before sunrise, around 0450 BST (sunrise is around 0550BST for most of the UK – Orkney gets an earlier sunrise at 0535, while the southwest of England have to wait till around 0605).

If you’ve got a pair of binoculars and a tripod, or even better a telescope, it’s really worth looking at these two planets. Venus is the brighter of the two, shining about twice as brightly as Jupiter through the morning twilight, but if you can magnify them (and you’ll catch them in the same field of view in a pair of binoculars), then Jupiter will be around three times the diameter of Venus (30 arcseconds compared to 10), and you’ll see Jupiter’s four largest moons as tiny points of light near the giant planet.

Don’t worry if you’re clouded out, or if you sleep in, on Monday morning; they’ll be close together in the pre-dawn sky for a few days afterwards too.

Venus-Jupiter conjunction this morning, 0450BST 16 August 2014

Venus-Jupiter conjunction 0450BST 17 August 2014

Venus-Jupiter conjunction at its closest, 0450BST 18 August 2014

Venus-Jupiter conjunction in close up, 0450BST 18 August 2014

Categories: Stargazing

Perihelion 2012

At around 0100 GMT on 5 January 2012 the Earth will be at perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun this year.

If that sounds confusing to you, and has you wondering why it’s so cold given that the Earth is at its closest to the Sun, then this belies (a) a northern-hemisphere-centric attitude (in the Southern Hemisphere it’s summer right now), and (b) a misunderstanding of what causes the seasons.

The Earth orbits the sun in a nearly circular orbit called an ellipse. The degree by which an orbit differs from a perfect circle is called the eccentricity, e. If e = 0 then the orbit is circular; if e = 1 then the orbit is parabolic, and therefore not gravitationally bound to the Sun. The Earth’s orbital eccentricity is 0.0167, meaning that it is very nearly circular, with the short axis of the ellipse being around 96% the length of the long axis. Thus, during perihelion Earth is 0.983AU from the Sun, while during aphelion (its furthest distance from the Sun, occurring this year on 4 July) Earth is 1.017AU from the Sun. (1AU = 1 astronomical unit = the average distance between the Earth and the Sun = 150 million km).

The seasons on Earth have really nothing to do with how close the Earth is to the Sun at different times of year. Indeed how could they, given that the difference in distance between closest and furthest approach is only a few per cent? The seasonal differences we experience are of course caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which is inclined by 23.5 degrees from the vertical.

This tilt means that, as Earth orbits the Sun, for six months of the year one hemisphere tips towards the Sun, so that it experiences longer days than nights, becoming most pronounced at midsummer, at which point the Sun reaches its highest in the sky at noon. Simultaneously the other hemisphere tips away from the Sun, and experiences shorter days than nights, becoming most pronounced at midwinter, on which day the Sun is at its lowest noontime altitude.

The further you are from the equator the more pronounced the seasonal effects. In fact equatorial countries don’t experience seasonal variations, while the poles experience extremes with six-month-long winters and summers. The timing of perihelion and aphelion relative to our seasons is entirely random. The fact the southern hemisphere midsummer (21 Dec) almost coincides with perihelion (5 Jan) is simply that; a coincidence. Given that fact, there is no reason to be surprised that perihelion occurs so close to northern hemisphere midwinter: it has to happen some time and it’s a coincidence that it happens to occur within two weeks of midwinter / midsummer.

Categories: General Astronomy