Average Orbital Distance

If a planet is orbiting the Sun with a semi-major axis, a, and orbital eccentricity, e, it is often stated that the average distance of the planet from the Sun is simply a.  This is only true for circular orbits (e = 0) where the planet maintains a constant distance from the Sun, and that distance is a.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical planet much like the Earth that has a perfectly circular orbit around the Sun with a = 1.0 AU and e = 0.  It is easy to see in this case that at all times, the planet will be exactly 1.0 AU from the Sun.

If, however, the planet orbits the Sun in an elliptical orbit at a = 1 AU and e > 0, we find that the planet orbits more slowly when it is farther from Sun than when it is nearer the Sun.  So, you’d expect to see the time-averaged average distance to be greater than 1.0 AU.  This is indeed the case.

The Earth’s current osculating orbital elements give us:

a = 0.999998 and e = 0.016694

Earth’s average distance from the Sun is thus:

Mercury, the innermost planet, has the most eccentric orbit of all the major planets:

a = 0.387098 and e = 0.205638

Mercury’s average distance from the Sun is thus:

Saturn V

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the inaugural flight of Wernher von Braun’s magnum opus, the giant Saturn V moon rocket.  This first flight was an unmanned mission, Apollo 4, and took place less than 10 months after the tragic launch pad fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, 40, Ed White, 36, and Roger Chaffee, 31.

Apollo 4 launch, November 9, 1967
Apollo 4 image of Earth at an altitude of 7,300 miles

The unmanned Apollo 4 mission was a complete success, paving the way for astronauts to go to the Moon.  After another successful unmanned test flight (Apollo 6), the Saturn V rocket carried the first astronauts into space on the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968.  On that mission, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders orbited the Moon for 20 hours and then returned safely to Earth.

Bill Anders took this iconic photo of Earth from Apollo 8 while in orbit around the Moon

“As of 2017, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful (highest total impulse) rocket ever brought to operational status, and holds records for the heaviest payload launched and largest payload capacity to low Earth orbit (LEO) of 140,000 kg (310,000 lb), which included the third stage and unburned propellant needed to send the Apollo Command/Service Module and Lunar Module to the Moon.  To date, the Saturn V remains the only launch vehicle to launch missions to carry humans beyond low Earth orbit.”

Reference (for quoted material above)
Wikipedia contributors, “Saturn V,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Saturn_V&oldid=808028027 (accessed November 9, 2017).

Changing Solar Distance

Between January 2 and 5 each year, the Earth reaches orbital perihelion, its closest distance to the Sun (0.983 AU).  Between July 3 and 6 each year, the Earth reaches orbital aphelion, its farthest distance from the Sun (1.017 AU).  These dates of perihelion and aphelion slowly shift across the calendar (always a half year apart) with a period between 22,000 and 26,000 years.

These distances can be easily derived knowing the semi-major axis (a) and orbital eccentricity (e) of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which are 1.000 and 0.017, respectively.

q = a (1-e) = 1.000 (1-0.017) = 0.983 AU

Q = a (1+e) = 1.000 (1+0.017) = 1.017 AU

So, the Earth is 0.034 AU closer to the Sun in early January than it is in early July.  This is about 5 million km or 3.1 million miles.

How great a distance is this, really?  The Moon in its orbit around the Earth is closer to the Sun around New Moon than it is around Full Moon.  Currently, this difference in distance ranges between 130,592 miles (April 2018) and 923,177 miles (October 2018).  Using the latter value, we see that the Moon’s maximum monthly range in distance from the Sun is 30% of the Earth’s range in distance from the Sun between perihelion and aphelion.

How about in terms of the diameter of the Sun?  The Sun’s diameter is 864,526 miles.  The Earth is just 3.6 Sun diameters closer to the Sun at perihelion than it is at aphelion.  Not much!  On average, the Earth is about 108 solar diameters distant from the Sun.

How about in terms of angular size?  When the Earth is at perihelion, the Sun exhibits an angular size of 29.7 arcminutes.  At aphelion, that angle is 28.7 arcminutes.

Can you see the difference?