Astronomical unit

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Astronomical unit
The red line indicates the Earth–Sun distance, which on average is about 1 astronomical unit.
Standard: Astronomical system of units
(Accepted for use with the SI)
Quantity: length
Symbol: au or ua
Expressed in: 1 au or ua =
metric (SI) units 149597870700 m
imperial & US units 9.2956×107 mi
astronomical units 4.8481×10−6 pc
   1.5813×10−5 ly
The semi-major and semi-minor axis of an ellipse
1. Planet at aphelion 2. Planet at perihelion 3. Sun. Drawing not to scale

The astronomical unit (AU) is a unit of length got from the Earth's orbit. It is the average distance the Earth gets from the Sun on the long axis of the ellipse. Its definition is: the length of the semi-major axis of the Earth's elliptical orbit around the Sun. "Semi-major" means half the long axis.

The AU is about 150 million kilometers or 93 million miles. Astronomers usually measure distances within the Solar System in astronomical units. Mars is about 1.4 AU from the Sun, Jupiter lies at roughly 5.2 AU, and Neptune is roughly 30 AU from the Sun. Light travels an AU in about 8.317 minutes.

More accuracy[change | change source]

From 1976 to 2012 the AU was defined as “the radius of an unperturbed circular Newtonian orbit about the Sun of a particle having infinitesimal mass, moving with a mean motion of 0.01720209895 radians per day (known as the Gaussian constant)”. [1][2][3] In 2012, the IAU redefined it to be simply 149597870700 m.[4]

In the IERS numerical standards, the speed of light in a vacuum is defined as c0 = 299792458 m/s, in accordance with the SI units. The time to cover an AU is τA = 499.0047838061±0.00000001 s, resulting in the astronomical unit in metres as c0τA = 149597870700±3 m.[5] It is very roughly the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

References[change | change source]

  1. Resolution No. 10 of the XVIth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, Grenoble, 1976
  2. H. Hussmann, F. Sohl, J. Oberst (2009), "§ Astronomical units", in Joachim E Trümper, Astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. Volume VI/4B Solar System, Springer, p. 4, ISBN 3-540-88054-2 
  3. Gareth V Williams (1997), "Astronomical unit", in James H. Shirley, Rhodes Whitmore Fairbridge, Encyclopedia of planetary sciences, Springer, p. 48, ISBN 0-412-06951-2 
  4. Geoff Brumfiel (14-Sep-2012). "The astronomical unit gets fixed: Earth–Sun distance changes from slippery equation to single number". Retrieved 14-Sep-2012.  Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  5. Gérard Petit and Brian Luzum, eds. (2010). "Table 1.1: IERS numerical standards" (PDF). IERS technical note no. 36: General definitions and numerical standards. International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service.  For complete document see Gérard Petit and Brian Luzum, eds. (2010). IERS Conventions (2010): IERS technical note no. 36. International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service. ISBN 978-3-89888-989-6. 

Other websites[change | change source]