Solar System Orbits

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One of the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) requirements for a celestial body to be classified as a planet (or a dwarf planet) is that it orbits the Sun. All of the planets have different orbits, which affect many of the planets’ other characteristics.

Since Pluto became a dwarf planet, Mercury is the planet with the most eccentric orbit. The eccentricity of an orbit is the measurement of how different the orbit is from a circular shape. If an orbit is a perfect circle, its eccentricity is zero. As the orbit becomes more elliptical, the eccentricity increases. Mercury’s orbit ranges from 46 million kilometers from the Sun to 70 million kilometers from the Sun.

Venus, which is right next to Mercury, has the least eccentric orbit of any of the planet in the Solar System. Its orbit ranges between 107 million km and 109 million km from the Sun and has an eccentricity of .007 giving it a nearly perfect circle for its orbit.

Earth also has a relatively circular orbit with an eccentricity of .017. Earth has a perihelion of 147 million kilometers; the perihelion is the closest point to the Sun in an object’s orbit. Our planet has an aphelion of 152 million kilometers. An aphelion is the furthest point from the Sun in an object’s orbit.

Mars has one of the most eccentric orbits in our Solar System at .093. Its perihelion is 207 million kilometers, and it has an aphelion of 249 million kilometers.

Jupiter has a perihelion of 741 million kilometers and an aphelion of 778 million kilometers. Its eccentricity is .048. Jupiter takes 11.86 years to orbit the Sun. Although this seems a long time compared to the time our own planet takes to orbit, it is only a fraction of the time of some of the other planets’ orbits.

Saturn is 1.35 billion kilometers at its perihelion and 1.51 billion kilometers from the Sun at its furthest point. It has an eccentricity of .056. Since it was first discovered in 1610, Saturn has only orbited the Sun 13 times because it takes 29.7 years to orbit once.

Uranus is 2.75 billion miles from the Sun at its closest point and 3 billion miles from the Sun at its aphelion. It has an eccentricity of .047 and takes 84.3 years to orbit the Sun. Uranus has such an extreme axial tilt (97.8°) that rotates on its side. This causes radical changes in seasons.

Neptune is the furthest planet from the Sun with a perihelion of 4.45 billion kilometers and an aphelion of 4.55 billion kilometers. It has an eccentricity of .009, which is almost as low as Venus’ eccentricity. It takes Neptune 164.8 years to orbit the Sun.

Universe Today has articles on orbits of the planets and asteroid orbits.

For more information, check out articles on an overview of the Solar System and new planet orbits backwards.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all the planets including Mercury.

References:
NASA: Transits of Mercury
NASA: Solar System Math
NASA: Mars, You’re So Complicated
NASA Solar System Exploration

Orbits of the Planets

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Centuries ago, people believed that the Earth was the center of the Solar System. Slowly, that view was replaced with the heliocentric view. With that change came the realization that the planets orbit the Sun.

When Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet, Mercury became the planet with the most eccentric orbit. The eccentricity of an orbit is a measurement of how much the orbit deviates from a circular shape. If an orbit is a perfect circle, it has an eccentricity of zero, and that number increases with an increase in eccentricity. Mercury has an eccentricity of .21. Its orbit ranges from 46 million kilometers at the closest point to the Sun to 70 million kilometers at the farthest point. The closest point to the Sun in an orbit is called the perihelion, and the farthest point is the aphelion. Mercury is the fastest planet to orbit the Sun at approximately Earth 88 days.

Venus has the least eccentricity of any planet in our Solar System – eccentricity of .007 – with a nearly perfect circular orbit. Venus’ orbit ranges from 107 million kilometers at the perihelion to 109 million kilometers from the Sun. It takes 224.7 of our days to orbit the Sun. A day on Venus is actually longer than a year because the planet rotates so slowly. Seen from the Sun’s north pole, all of the planets rotate counter-clockwise, but Venus actually rotates clockwise; it is the only planet to do that.

Earth also has a very low eccentricity of .017. On average, the planet is about 150 million kilometers from the Sun, but it can range from 147 million kilometers to 152 million kilometers. It takes our planet roughly 365.256 days to orbit the Sun, which is the reason for leap years.

Mars has an eccentricity of .093 making it one of the most eccentric orbits in our Solar System. Mars perihelion is 207 million kilometers and its aphelion is 249 million kilometers from the Sun. Over time, Mars’ orbit has become more eccentric. It takes 687 Earth days to orbit the Sun.

Jupiter has an eccentricity of .048 with a perihelion of 741 million kilometers and an aphelion of 778 million kilometers. It takes 4331 Earth days – 11.86 of our years – for Jupiter to orbit the Sun.

Saturn has an eccentricity of .056. At its closest point, Saturn is 1.35 billion kilometers from the Sun, and 1.51 billion kilometers away at its farthest point. Depending on what position it is in its orbit, Saturn’s rings are fully visible or almost invisible. The planet takes 29.7 years to orbit the Sun. In fact, since it was discovered in 1610, Saturn has only orbited approximately 13 times. Earth has orbited the Sun almost 400 times since then.

Uranus has a perihelion of 2.75 billion kilometers and an aphelion of 3 billion kilometers from the Sun. Its eccentricity is .047. It takes Uranus 84.3 Earth years to orbit the Sun. Uranus is unique because it actually rotates on its side with an axial tilt of almost 99°.

Neptune’s eccentricity is .009, almost as low as Venus’. The planet has a perihelion of 4.45 billion kilometers and an aphelion of 4.55 billion kilometers. Since Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet, Neptune is the planet with an orbit farthest from the Sun.

Universe Today has articles on orbits of all the planets including Mercury and Mars.

There are a number of other sites, including one with animations of the orbits and what an orbit is.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the orbit of the planets.