ecliptic (ēklĭpˈtĭk, ĭ–) [key], the great circle on the celestial sphere that lies in the plane of the earth's orbit (called the plane of the ecliptic). Because of the earth's yearly revolution around the sun, the sun appears to move in an annual journey through the heavens with the ecliptic as its path. The ecliptic is the principal axis in the ecliptic coordinate system. The two points at which the ecliptic crosses the celestial equator are the equinoxes. The obliquity of the ecliptic is the inclination of the plane of the ecliptic to the plane of the celestial equator, an angle of about 231/2°. The constellations through which the ecliptic passes are the constellations of the zodiac.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.