What is an Astronomical Unit?


When it comes to dealing with the cosmos, we humans like to couch things in familiar terms. When examining exoplanets, we classify them based on their similarities to the planets in our own Solar System – i.e. terrestrial, gas giant, Earth-size, Jupiter-sized, Neptune-sized, etc. And when measuring astronomical distances, we do much the same.

For instance, one of the most commonly used means of measuring distances across space is known as an Astronomical Unit (AU). Based on the distance between the Earth and the Sun, this unit allows astronomers to characterize the vast distances between the Solar planets and the Sun, and between extra-solar planets and their stars.


According to the current astronomical convention, a single Astronomical Unit is equivalent to 149,597,870.7 kilometers (or 92,955,807 miles). However, this is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, as that distance is subject to variation during Earth’s orbital period. In other words, the distance between the Earth and the Sun varies in the course of a single year.

Earth’s orbit around the Sun, showing its average distance (or 1 AU). Credit: Huritisho/Wikipedia Commons

During the course of a year, the Earth goes from distance of 147,095,000 km (91,401,000 mi) from the Sun at perihelion (its closest point) to 152,100,000 km (94,500,000 mi) at aphelion (its farthest point) – or from a distance of 0.983 AUs to 1.016 AUs.

History of Development:

The earliest recorded example of astronomers estimating the distance between the Earth and the Sun dates back to Classical Antiquity. In the 3rd century BCE work, On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon – which is attributed to Greek mathematician Aristarchus of Samos – the distance was estimated to be between 18 and 20 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

However, his contemporary Archimedes, in his 3rd century BCE work Sandreckoner, also claimed that Aristarchus of Samos placed the distance of 10,000 times the Earth’s radius. Depending on the values for either set of estimates, Aristarchus was off by a factor of about 2 (in the case of Earth’s radius) to 20 (the distance between the Earth and the Moon).

The oldest Chinese mathematical text – the 1st century BCE treatise known as Zhoubi Suanjing – also contains an estimate of the distance between the Earth and Sun. According to the anonymous treatise, the distance could be calculated by conducting geometric measurements of the length of noontime shadows created by objects spaced at specific distances. However, the calculations were based on the idea that the Earth was flat.

Illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the Universe, by Bartolomeu Velho (?-1568), from his work Cosmographia, made in France, 1568. Credit: Bibilotèque nationale de France, Paris

Famed 2nd century CE mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy relied on trigonometric calculations to come up with a distance estimate that was equivalent to 1210 times the radius of the Earth. Using records of lunar eclipses, he estimated the Moon’s apparent diameter, as well as the apparent diameter of the shadow cone of Earth traversed by the Moon during a lunar eclipse.

Using the Moon’s parallax, he also calculated the apparent sizes of the Sun and the Moon and concluded that the diameter of the Sun was equal to the diameter of the Moon when the latter was at it’s greatest distance from Earth. From this, Ptolemy arrived at a ratio of solar to lunar distance of approximately 19 to 1, the same figure derived by Aristarchus.

For the next thousand years, Ptolemy’s estimates of the Earth-Sun distance (much like most of his astronomical teachings) would remain canon among Medieval European and Islamic astronomers. It was not until the 17th century that astronomers began to reconsider and revise his calculations.

This was made possible thanks to the invention of the telescope, as well as Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion, which helped astronomers calculate the relative distances between the planets and the Sun with greater accuracy. By measuring the distance between Earth and the other Solar planets, astronomers were able to conduct parallax measurements to obtain more accurate values.

With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. Credit: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.

By the 19th century, determinations of about the speed of light and the constant of the aberration of light resulted in the first direct measurement of the Earth-Sun distance in kilometers.  By 1903, the term “astronomical unit” came to be used for the first time. And throughout the 20th century, measurements became increasingly precise and sophisticated, thanks in part to accurate observations of the effects of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Modern Usage:

By the 1960s, the development of direct radar measurements, telemetry, and the exploration of the Solar System with space probes led to precise measurements of the positions of the inner planets and other objects. In 1976, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) adopted a new definition during their 16th General Assembly. As part of their System of Astronomical Constants, the new definition stated:

“The astronomical unit of length is that length (A) for which the Gaussian gravitational constant (k) takes the value 0.01720209895 when the units of measurement are the astronomical units of length, mass and time. The dimensions of k² are those of the constant of gravitation (G), i.e., L³M-1T2. The term “unit distance” is also used for the length A.”

In response to the development of hyper-precise measurements, the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) decided to modify the the International System of Units (SI) in 1983. Consistent with this, they redefined the meter to be measured in terms of the speed of light in vacuum.

Infographic comparing the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO

However, by 2012, the IAU determined that the equalization of relativity made the measurement of AUs too complex, and redefined the astronomical unit in terms of meters. In accordance with this, a single AU is equal to 149597870.7 km exactly (92.955807 million miles), 499 light-seconds, 4.8481368×10-6 of a parsec, or 15.812507×10-6 of a light-year.

Today, the AU is used commonly to measure distances and create numerical models for the Solar System. It is also used when measuring extra-solar systems, calculating the extent of protoplanetary clouds or the distance between extra-solar planets and their parent star. When measuring interstellar distances, AUs are too small to offer convenient measurements. As such, other units – such as the parsec and the light year – are relied upon.

The Universe is a huge place, and measuring even our small corner of it producing some staggering results. But as always, we prefer to express them in ways that are as relatable and familiar.

We’ve written many interesting articles about distances in the Solar System here at Universe Today. Here’s How Far are the Planets from the Sun?, How Far is Mercury from the Sun?, How Far is Venus from the Sun?, How Far is Earth from the Sun?, How Far is Mars from the Sun?, How Far is Jupiter from the Sun?, How Far is Saturn from the Sun?, How Far is Uranus from the Sun?, How Far is Neptune from the Sun?, How Far is Pluto from the Sun?

If you’d like more information about the Earth’s orbit, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast dedicated to the measurement of distances in astronomy. Listen here, Episode 10: Measuring Distance in the Universe.


What Is The Future Of Our Sun?

Who knows what the future holds for our Sun? Dr. Mark Morris, a professor of astronomy at UCLA sure knows. Professor Morris sat down with us to let us know what we’re in for over the next few billions years.

“Hi, I’m Professor Mark Morris. I’m teaching at UCLA where I also carry out my research. I work on the center of the galaxy and what’s going on there – in this fabulous arena there, and on dying stars – stars that have reached the end of their lifetime and are putting on a display for us as they do so.”

What is the future of our sun?

“Well, there’s every expectation that in about 5 billion more years, that our sun will swell up to become a red giant. And then, as it gets larger and larger, it will eventually become what’s called an asymptotic giant branch star – a star whose radius is just under the distance between the sun and the Earth – one astronomical unit in size. So the Earth will be literally skimming the surface of the red giant sun when it’s an asymptotic giant branch star.”

“A star that big is also cool because they’re cold – red hot versus blue hot or yellow hot like our sun. Because it’s cold, a red giant star at its surface layers can keep all of its elements in the gas phase. So some of the heavier elements – the metals and the silicates – condense out as small dust grains, and when these elements condense out as solids, then radiation pressure from this very luminous giant star pushes the dust grains out. That may seem like a minor issue, but in fact these dust grains carry the gas with them. And so the star literally expels its atmosphere, and goes from a red giant star to a white dwarf, when finally the core of the star is exposed. Now, as it’s doing this, that hot core of the star is still very luminous and lights up through a fluorescent process, this out-flowing envelope, this atmosphere that was once a star, and that’s what produces these beautiful displays that are called planetary nebulae.”

“Now, planetary nebulae can be these beautiful round, spherical objects, or they can be bipolar, which is one of the mysteries that we’re working here is trying to understand why, at some stage, a star suddenly becomes axisymmetric – in other words, is sending out is’s atmosphere in two diametrically opposed directions predominantly, rather than continuing to lose mass spherically.”

Planetary Nebula
Planetary Nebula M2-9 (Credit: Bruce Balick (University of Washington), Vincent Icke (Leiden University, The Netherlands), Garrelt Mellema (Stockholm University), and NASA)

“We can’t invoke rotation of the star – that would be one way to get a preferred axis, but stars don’t rotate fast enough. If you take the sun and let it expand to become a red giant, then by the conservation of angular momentum, it literally won’t be spinning at all. It’ll be spinning so slowly that it’ll literally have no effect. So we can’t invoke spin, so there must be something going on deep down inside the star, that when you finally expose some rapidly spinning core, it can have an effect.”

“Or, all of the stars that we see as planetary nebula can have binary companions, that could be massive planets or relatively low mass stars that themselves can impose an angular momentum orientation on the system. This is in fact an idea that I’ve been championing for decades now, and it has some traction. There’s a lot of planetary nebula nuclei, the white dwarves, that seem to have companions near them that are suspect for having been responsible for helping strip the atmosphere of the mass-losing red giant star but also providing a preferred axis along which the ejected matter can flow.”

1 AU in KM

1 AU in KM = 149,598,000 kilometers

An astronomical unit is a method that astronomers use to measure large distances in the Solar System. 1 astronomical unit, or 1 au, is the average distance from the Sun to the Earth.

The Earth’s orbit around the Sun is actually elliptical. It varies from 147 million km to 152 million km. So the measurement of an astronomical unit is just the Earth’s average distance from the Sun. That’s where the more precise measurement of 1 AU to KM (149,598,000 km) comes from.

Here are some other distances in the Solar System:
Mercury: 0.39 AU
Venus: 0.72 AU
Mars: 1.5 AU
Jupiter: 5.2 AU
Saturn: 9.6 AU
Uranus: 19.2 AU
Neptune: 30.1 AU
Pluto: 39.5 AU
Eris: 67.7 AU
Oort Cloud: 50,000 AU
Alpha Centauri: 275,000 AU

We have written many articles about large distances in space. Here’s an article that explains how far space is, and here’s an article about the distance to stars.

You can also check out this cool calculator that lets you convert astronomical units into any other distance.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast detailing how astronomers measure distance in the Universe. Check out Episode 10: Measuring Distance in the Universe.

How Long is a Light Year?

A light year is the distance light can travel in vacuum in one year’s time. This distance is equivalent to roughly 9,461,000,000,000 km or 5,878,000,000,000 miles. This is such a large distance. For comparison, consider the circumference of the Earth when measured at the equator: 40,075 km.

You can even throw in the center to center distance between the Earth and the Moon, 384,403 km, and that value would still pale in comparison to 1 light year. Pluto, at its farthest orbit distance from the Sun, is only about 7,400,000,000 km from the center of our Solar System.

Because of its great scale, the light year is one of the units of distance used for astronomical objects. For example, Andromeda Galaxy, which is the nearest spiral galaxy from the Milky Way, is approximately 2.5 million light years away. Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system from our own Solar System is only 4.37 light years away.

Imagine using miles or kilometers when describing the diameter of the Milky Way Galaxy, some 100,000 light years. Expressed in km or mi in expanded notation, that could occupy a lot of space on this page. Just look at the first paragraph, wherein we described 1 light year, to see what I mean. Of course, one may argue that we can still use scientific notation. But well, some people easily get daunted by the mere sight of exponents.

Although the light year has a more familiar ring to us, having perhaps heard about it quite often in sci-fi films or in magazines, it is not the most widely used unit of distance in astrometry, the branch of astronomy that deals with measurements and positions of celestial bodies. That assignment is given to the parsec. 1 parsec is approximately equal to 3.26 light years.

Another commonly used unit of distance is the astronomical unit or AU, wherein 1 AU is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, and is roughly equivalent to 150,000,000 km. It is normally used when describing distances within the Milky Way.

Always remember that the ‘year’ we have been referring to here is not based in the internationally-accepted Gregorian Calendar. Instead, ‘year’ here refers to the Julian year. 1 Julian year is equivalent to 365.25 days or 31,557,600 seconds. The Julian calendar does not designate dates, hence is different from the Gregorian Calendar.

We have some related articles here in Universe Today. Here are the links:

Here are the links of two more articles from NASA:

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:

Source: NASA