Catching Earth at Aphelion

Do you feel a little… distant today? The day after the 4th of July weekend brings with it the promise of barbecue leftovers and discount fireworks. It also sees our fair planet at aphelion, or its farthest point from the Sun. In 2015, aphelion (or apoapsis) occurs at 19:40 Universal Time (UT)/3:40 PM EDT today, as we sit 1.01668 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. This translates to 152.1 million kilometres, or 94.5 million miles. We’re actually 3.3% closer to the Sun in early January than we are today. This also the latest aphelion has occurred on the calendar year since 2007, and it won’t fall on July 6th again until 2018. The insertion of an extra day every leap year causes the date for Earth aphelion to slowly vary between July 3rd and July 6th in the current epoch.

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Perihelion and aphelion versus the solstices and the equinoxes. Image credit: Gothika/Duoduoduo/Wikimedia commons 3.0 license

Aphelion sees the Earth 4.8 million kilometers farther from the Sun than perihelion in early January. The eccentricity of our orbit—that is, how much our planet’s orbit varies from circular to elliptical—currently sits at 0.017 or 1.7%.

It is ironic that we’re actually farther from the Sun in the middle of northern hemisphere summer. It sure doesn’t seem like it on a sweltering Florida summer day, right? That’s because the 23.44 degree tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis is by far the biggest driver of the seasons. But our variation in distance from the Sun does play a factor in long term climate as well. We move a bit slower farther from the Sun, assuring northern hemisphere summers are currently a bit longer (by about 4 days) than winters. The variation in solar insolation between aphelion and perihelion currently favors hot dry summers in the southern hemisphere.

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Perihelion and aphelion circumstances for the remainder of the decade. Credit: David Dickinson

But these factors are also slowly changing as well.

The eccentricity of our orbit varies from between 0.000055 and 0.0679 over a span of a ‘beat period’ of 100,000 years. Our current trend sees eccentricity slowly decreasing.

The tilt of our rotational axis varies between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees over 41,000 years. This value is also currently on a decreasing trend towards its shallow minimum around 11,800 AD.

And finally, the precession of the Earth’s axis and apsidal precession combine to slowly move the date of aphelion and perihelion one time around our calendar once every 21,000 years.

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The precession of the line of apsides versus the seasons. Image credit: Krishnavedala/Wikimedia commons 3.0 license.

These combine to form what are known as Milankovitch Cycles of long-term climate variation, which were first expressed by astronomer Milutin Milankovic in 1924. Anthropogenic climate change is a newcomer on the geologic scene, as human civilization does its very best to add a signal of its very own to the mix.

We also just passed the mid-point ‘pivot of the year’ on July 2nd. More than half of 2015 is now behind us.

Want to observe the aphelion and perihelion of the Earth for yourself? If you have a filtered rig set to photograph the Sun, try this: take an image of the Sun today, and take another on perihelion next year on January 2nd. Be sure to use the same settings, so that the only variation is the angular size of the Sun itself. The disk of the Sun varies from 33’ to 31’ across. This is tiny but discernible. Such variations in size between the Sun and the Moon can also mean the difference between a total solar and annular eclipse.

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A perihelion versus aphelion day Sol. Image credit: David Dickinson

Should we term the aphelion Sun a #MiniSol? Because you can never have too many internet memes, right?

And did you know: the rotational axis of the Sun is inclined slightly versus the plane of the ecliptic to the tune of 7.25 degrees as well. In 2015, the Sun’s north pole was tipped our way on March 7th, and we’ll be looking at the south pole of our Sun on September 9th.

And of course, seasons on other planets are much more extreme. We’re just getting our first good looks at Pluto courtesy of New Horizons as it heads towards its historic flyby on July 14th. Pluto reached perihelion in 1989, and is headed towards aphelion 49 AU from the Sun on the far off date in 2114 AD. Sitting on Pluto, the Sun would shine at -19th magnitude—about the equivalent of the twilight period known as the ‘Blue Hour’ here on Earth—and the Sun would appear a scant one arc minute across, just large enough to show a very tiny disk.

All thoughts to consider as we start the long swing inward towards perihelion next January.

Happy aphelion!

Happy (or is it Merry?) Aphelion This Friday

This 4th of July weekend brings us one more reason to celebrate. On July 5th at approximately 11:00 AM EDT/15:00 UT, our fair planet Earth reaches aphelion, or its farthest point from the Sun at 1.0167 Astronomical Units (A.U.s) or 152,096,000 kilometres distant.

Though it may not seem it to northern hemisphere residents sizzling in the summer heat, we’re currently 3.3% farther from the Sun than our 147,098,290 kilometre (0.9833 A.U.) approach made in early January.

We thought it would be a fun project to capture this change. A common cry heard from denier circles as to scientific facts is “yeah, but have you ever SEEN it?” and in the case of the variation in distance between the Sun and the Earth from aphelion to perihelion, we can report that we have!

We typically observe the Sun in white light and hydrogen alpha using a standard rig and a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope  on every clear day. We have two filtered rigs for white light- a glass Orion filter for our 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, and a homemade Baader solar filter for our DSLR. We prefer the DSLR rig for ease of deployment. We’ve described in a previous post how to make a safe and effective solar observing rig using Baader solar film.

Our solar imaging rig.
Our primary solar imaging rig. A Nikon D60 DSLR with a 400mm lens + a 2x teleconverter and Baader solar filter. Very easy to employ!

We’ve been imaging the Sun daily for a few years as part of our effort to make a home-brewed “solar rotation and activity movie” of the entire solar cycle.  We recently realized that we’ve imaged Sol very near aphelion and perihelion on previous years with this same fixed rig, and decided to check and see if we caught the apparent size variation of our nearest star. And sure enough, comparing the sizes of the two disks revealed a tiny but consistent variation.

It’s a common misconception that the seasons are due to our distance from the Sun. The insolation due to the 23.4° tilt of the rotational axis of the Earth is the dominant driving factor behind the seasons. (Don’t they still teach this in grade school? You’d be surprised at the things I’ve heard!) In the current epoch, a January perihelion and a July aphelion results in milder climatic summers in the northern hemisphere and more severe summers in the southern. The current difference in solar isolation between hemispheres due to eccentricity of Earth’s orbit is 6.8%.

The orbit of the Earth also currently has one of the lowest eccentricities (how far it deviates for circular) of the planets at 0.0167, or 1.67%. Only Neptune (1%) and Venus (0.68%) are “more circular.”

The orbital eccentricity of the Earth also oscillates over a 413,000 year period between 5.8% (about the same as Saturn) down to 0.5%. We’re currently at the low end of the scale, just below the mean value of 2.8%.

Variation in eccentricity is also coupled with other factors, such as the change in axial obliquity the precession of the line of apsides and the equinoxes to result in what are known as Milankovitch cycles. These variations in extremes play a role in the riddle of climate over hundreds of thousands of years.  Climate change deniers like to point out that there are large natural cycles in the records, and they’re right – but in the wrong direction. Note that looking solely at variations in the climate due to Milankovitch cycles, we should be in a cooling trend right now.  Against this backdrop, the signal of anthropogenic climate forcing and global dimming of albedo (which also masks warming via cloud cover and reflectivity) becomes even more ominous.

Aphelion can presently fall between July 2nd at 20:00 UT (as it did last in 1960) and July 7th at 00:00 UT as it last did on 2007.  The seemingly random variation is due to the position of the Earth with respect to the barycenter of the Earth-Moon system near the time of aphelion. The once every four year reset of the leap year (with the exception of the year 2000!) also plays a lesser role.

Perihelion and aphelion vs the solstices and equinoxes, an exagarated view.
Perihelion and aphelion vs the solstices and equinoxes, an exaggerated view. (Wikimedia Commons image under a 3.0 Unported Attribution-Share Alike license. Author Gothika/Doudoudou).

I love observing the Sun any time of year, as its face is constantly changing from day-to-day. There’s also no worrying about light pollution in the solar observing world, though we’ve noticed turbulence aloft (in the form of bad seeing) is an issue later in the day, especially in the summertime.  The rotational axis of the Sun is also tipped by about 7.25° relative to the ecliptic, and will present its north pole at maximum tilt towards us on September 8th. And yes, it does seem strange to think in terms of “the north pole of the Sun…”

We’re also approaching the solar maximum through the 2013-2014 time frame, another reason to break out those solar scopes.  This current Solar Cycle #24 has been off to a sputtering start, with the Sun active one week, and quiet the next. The last 2009 minimum was the quietest in a century, and there’s speculation that Cycle #25 may be missing all together.

And yes, the Moon also varies in its apparent size throughout its orbit as well, as hyped during last month’s perigee or Super Moon. Keep those posts handy- we’ve got one more Super Moon to endure this month on July 22nd. The New Moon on July 8th at 7:15UT/3:15 AM EDT will occur just 30 hours after apogee, and will hence be the “smallest New Moon” of 2013, with a lot less fanfare. Observers worldwide also have a shot at catching the slender crescent Moon on the evening of July 9th. This lunation and the sighting of the crescent Moon also marks the start of the month of Ramadan on the Muslim calendar.

Be sure to observe the aphelion Sun (with proper protection of course!) It would be uber-cool to see a stitched together animation of the Sun “growing & shrinking” from aphelion to perihelion and back. We could also use a hip Internet-ready meme for the perihelion & aphelion Sun- perhaps a “MiniSol?” A recent pun from Dr Marco Langbroek laid claim to the moniker of “#SuperSun;” in time for next January’s perihelion;

Marco quote

Could a new trend be afoot?