earth

The Astronomical Earth

Of the planets, only Mercury and Venus are nearer to the sun; the mean distance from the earth to the sun is c.93 million mi (150 million km).

Rotation and Revolution

The earth rotates from west to east about a line (its axis) that is perpendicular to the plane of the equator and passes through the center of the earth, terminating at the north and south geographical poles. The period of one complete rotation is a day; the rotation of the earth is responsible for the alternate periods of light and darkness (day and night). The earth revolves about the sun once in a period of a little more than 3651/4 days (a year). The path of this revolution, the earth's orbit, is an ellipse rather than a circle, and the earth is consequently nearer to the sun in January than it is in July; the difference between its maximum and minimum distances from the sun is c.3 million mi (4.8 million km). This difference is not great enough to affect climate on the earth.

The Change in Seasons

The change in seasons is caused by the tilt of the earth's axis to the plane of its orbit, making an angle of c.66.5°. When the northern end of the earth's axis is tilted toward the sun, the most direct rays of sunlight fall in the Northern Hemisphere. This causes its summer season. At the same time the Southern Hemisphere experiences winter since it is then receiving indirect rays. Halfway between, in spring and in autumn, there is a time (see equinox) when all parts of the earth have equal day and night. When the northern end of the earth's axis is tilted away from the sun, the least direct sunlight falls on the Northern Hemisphere. This causes its winter season.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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