Does the Sun Look Smaller to You?

Phil Plait writes on Discover’s Bad Astronomy:

Criminy, I almost forgot: on July 4th, at roughly 08:00 UT, the Earth was at aphelion. Uh, what?

The Earth does not orbit the Sun in a perfect circle. The orbit is slightly elliptical. If you were to draw the Earth’s orbit on a piece of paper, you’d need a sharp eye to detect its non-circularity, but deviant it is. What this means in real terms is that the Earth ranges from about 148 to about 152 million kilometers from the Sun over the course of six months (which is how long it takes to get from one side of the orbit to the other, of course).

When the Earth is closest to the Sun it’s at perihelion, and when it’s farthest it’s called aphelion (I usually pronounce that app-helion, if you care, though I’ve heard others say aff-helion). So today we passed aphelion, and slowly but inexorably, over the next six months we’ll draw slightly closer to the Sun, and then the whole thing repeats.

That 4 million km difference sounds like a lot. But over the 150 million average radius of the orbit it’s only a slight difference by eye. The Sun will look about 3% larger at perihelion versus aphelion, and you’d never notice that, especially since the change is slow and takes six months….

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