Earth at Aphelion

Sunset over Naples, Florida. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

Having a great July 4th? The day gives us another cause to celebrate, as the Earth reaches aphelion today, or our closest point to our host star.

Aphelion is the opposite of the closest point of the year, known as perihelion. Note that the ‘helion’ part only applies to things in solar orbit, perigee/apogee for orbit ’round the Earth, apolune/perilune for orbit around the Moon, and so on. You’ll hear the words apijove and perijove bandied about this week a bit, as NASA’s Juno spacecraft enters orbit around Jupiter tonight. And there are crazier and even more obscure counterparts out there, such as peribothron and apobothron (orbiting a black hole) and apastron/periastron (orbiting a star other than our Sun). And finally, there’s the one-size fits all generic periapsis and apoapsis, good for all occasions and ending pedantic arguments.

In the 21st century, aphelion for the Earth can actually fall anywhere from July 2nd to the 7th. The once every four year leap day is the primary driver in this oscillation, and the inclusion of a century leap day in 2100 — the first since 1900 — will reset things even farther astray.

In 2016, the Moon reaches New on July 4th at 11:01 Universal Time (UT) just over five hours prior to aphelion, marking the start of lunation 1157. The sighting of the waxing crescent Moon also marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Earth reaches aphelion at 16:24 UT today, 1.0168 AU from the Sun. This year’s close occurrence of aphelion versus a New Moon won’t get topped until 2054, with an aphelion versus New Moon just 5 hours 6 minutes apart. The 2016 coincidence is also the closest since the start of the 21st century.

Fun fact: we’re headed towards an aphelion maximum just 6,590 kilometers off of the mean on July 4th, 2019, the widest for the 21st century. Mean distance from the Sun at aphelion is 1.0167 AU (152,097,701 km). Aphelion for the Earth can range over a variation of 21,225 kilometers for the 21st century.

It’s a happy circumstance that Earth reaches aphelion in our current epoch in the midst of northern hemisphere summer, and just a few weeks after the June solstice. The eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit actually varies from near-circular to 0.0679 and back over the span of 413,000 years. In our current epoch, the eccentricity of our orbit is 0.017 and decreasing. Add this variation to changes in the axial tilt of our planet and orbital obliquity, and you have what are known as Milankovitch Cycles. One only has to look at Mars’s wacky orbit with an eccentricity of 0.0934 to see what a difference it makes. Ironically, Mars reaches perihelion in October 29th, 2016, and will make a very close pass near next opposition pass in 2018.

Want to prove it for yourself? You can indeed ‘observe’ aphelion. The trick is to image the solar disk using the same rig and settings… about six months apart. At aphelion, the solar disk is 31.6′ across, versus 32.7′ across at perihelion. This variation is slight, but you can indeed see the subtle difference side by side:

Aphelion means a smaller apparent Sun, a good target for a total solar eclipse. Stick around until July 2nd, 2019 and you’ll see just that, as a total solar eclipse occurs near aphelion for South America and the southern Pacific at 4 minutes and 33 seconds in central duration.

This month also sees another special treat, as all classical planets enter the evening sky.

More to come on that soon. For now, happy 4th of July, and merry aphelion!

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Seeking the Summer Solstice

A summer solstice sunset. Image credit and copyright: Sarah and Simon Fisher.

Can you feel the heat? If you find yourself north of the equator, astronomical summer kicks off today with the arrival of the summer solstice. In the southern hemisphere, the reverse is true, as today’s solstice marks the start of winter.

Thank our wacky seasons, and the 23.4 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis for the variation in insolation. Today, all along the Tropic of Cancer at latitude 23.4 degrees north, folks will experience what’s known as Lahiana Noon, as the Sun passes through the zenith directly overhead. Eratosthenes first noted this phenomena in 3rd century BC from an account in the town of Syene (modern day Aswan), 925 kilometers to the south of Alexandria, Egypt. The account mentioned how, at noon on the day of the solstice, the Sun shined straight down a local well, and cast no shadows. He went on to correctly deduce that the differing shadow angles between the two locales is due to the curvature of the Earth, and went on to calculate the curvature of the planet for good measure. Not a bad bit of reasoning, for an experiment that you can do today.

And although we call it the Tropic of Cancer, and the astrological sign of the Crab begins today as the Sun passes 90 degrees longitude along the ecliptic plane as seen from Earth, the Sun now actually sits in the astronomical constellation of Taurus on the June northward solstice. Thank precession; live out a normal 72 year human life span, and the solstice will move one degree along the ecliptic—stick around about 26,000 years, and it will complete one circuit of the zodiac. That’s something that your astrologer won’t tell you.

The solstice in the early 21st century actually falls on June 20th, thanks to the ‘reset’ the Gregorian calendar received in 2000 from the addition of a century year leap day. The actual moment the Sun reaches its northernmost declination today and slowly reverses its apparent motion is 22:34 Universal Time (UT).  In 2016, the Moon reaches Full just 11 hours to the solstice. The last time a Full Moon fell within 24 hours of a solstice was December 2010, and we had a total lunar eclipse to boot. Such a coincidence won’t occur again until December 2018. You get a good study in celestial mechanics 101 tonight, as the Full Moon rises opposite to the setting Sun. The Moon occupies the southern region of the sky where the Sun will reside this December during the other solstice, when the Full Moon will then ride high in the night sky, and gets ever higher as we head towards a Major Lunar Standstill in 2025.

Of course, this motion of the Sun through the year is all an illusion from our terrestrial biased viewpoint. We’re actually racing around the Sun to the tune of 30 kilometers per second. You wouldn’t know it at summer heats up in the northern hemisphere, but we’re headed towards aphelion or the farthest point from the Sun for the Earth on July 4th at 152 million kilometers or 1.017 astronomical units (AU) distant. And the latest sunset as seen from latitude 40 degrees actually occurs on June 27th at 7:33 PM (not accounting for Daylight Saving Time) go much further north (like the Canadian Maritimes or the UK) and true astronomical darkness never occurs in late June.

And speaking of the Sun, we’re wrapping up the end of the 11 year solar cycle this year… and there are hints that we may be in for another profound solar minimum similar to 2009. We’ve already had a brief spotless stretch last month, and some solar astronomers have predicted that solar cycle #25 may be absent all together. This means a subsidence in aurorae, and an uncharacteristically blank Sol.

But don’t despair and pack it in for the summer. As a consolation prize, high northern latitudes have in recent years played host to electric blue noctilucent clouds near the June solstice. Also, the International Space Station enters a second period of full illumination through the entire length of its orbit from July 26th to 28th, making for the possibility of seeing multiple passes in a single night.

And folks in the Islamic world (and travelers such as ourselves currently in Morocco) can rejoice, as the Full Moon means that we’re half way through the fasting lunar month Ramadan. This is an especially tough one, as Ramadan 2016 goes right through the summer solstice, making for only a brief six hour span to break the fast each  night and prepare for another 18 hour long stretch… and to repeat this pattern for 29 days straight. It’s a fascinating time of night markets and celebration, but for travelers, it also means odd opening hours and delays.

See any curious solstice shadow alignments in your neighborhood today?

Happy Lahiana Noon… from here on out, northern viewers slowly start to take back the night!

 

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Watch Mercury Transit the Sun in Multiple Wavelengths

A composite image of the May 9, 2016 transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun, as seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory.  Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO/Genna Duberstein

On May 9, 2016, Mercury passed directly between the Sun and Earth. No one had a better view of the event than the space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory, as it had a completely unobstructed view of the entire seven-and-a-half-hour event! This composite image, above, of Mercury’s journey across the Sun was created with visible-light images from the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager on SDO, and below is a wonderful video of the transit, as it includes views in several different wavelenths (and also some great soaring music sure to stir your soul).

Mercury transits of the Sun happen about 13 times each century, however the next one will occur in only about three and a half years, on November 11, 2019. But then it’s a long dry spell, as the following one won’t occur until November 13, 2032.

Make sure you check out the great gallery of Mercury transit images from around the world compiled by our David Dickinson.

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