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Earth closest to sun on January 4

Are you an early riser? The use the waning moon to locate the planet Mars and the planet Spica before sunrise..

Are you an early riser? Use the waning moon to locate the planet Mars and star Spica before sunrise.

Cartoon above via Sara Zimmerman at Unearthed Comics.

On January 4, 2017, our planet Earth reaches its closest point to the sun for this year at 14:18 Universal Time (5:49 p.m. EST). This is Earth’s perihelion. The word perihelion is from Greek roots peri meaning near, and helios meaning sun.

Earth is closest to the sun every year in early January, when it’s winter for the Northern Hemisphere. We’re farthest away from the sun in early July, during our Northern Hemisphere summer.

Earth is about 5 million kilometers – or 3 million miles – closer to the sun in early January than it is in early July. That’s not a huge change in distance. It’s not enough of a change to cause the seasons on Earth.

This year, on January 4, 2017, the Earth at its closest point swings to within 147,100,993 kilometers (91,404,319 miles) of the sun. That’s in contrast to six months from now, when the Earth reaches aphelion – its most distant point – on July 3, 2017: 152,092,511 km (94,505,905 miles).

Despite what many may think, Earth’s distance from the sun isn’t what causes the seasons. On Earth, because our orbit is so close to being circular, it’s mostly the tilt of our world’s axis that creates winter and summer. In winter, your part of Earth is tilted away from the sun. In summer, your part of Earth is tilted toward the sun. The day of maximum tilt toward or away from the sun is the December or June solstice.

Earth at perihelion and aphelion: 2001 to 2100

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA

Though not responsible for the seasons, Earth’s closest and farthest points to the sun do affect seasonal lengths. When the Earth comes closest to the sun for the year, as around now, our world is moving fastest in orbit around the sun. Earth is rushing along now at 30.3 kilometers per second (almost 19 miles per second) – moving about a kilometer per second faster than when Earth is farthest from the sun in early July. Thus the Northern Hemisphere winter (Southern Hemisphere summer) is the shortest season as Earth rushes from the solstice in December to the equinox in March.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer season (June solstice to September equinox) lasts nearly 5 days longer than our winter season. And, of course, the corresponding seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are opposite. Southern Hemisphere winter is nearly 5 days longer than Southern Hemisphere summer.

It’s all due to the shape of Earth’s orbit. The shape is an ellipse, like a circle someone sat down on and squashed. The elliptical shape of Earth’s orbit causes the variation in the length of the seasons – and brings us closest to the sun in January.

Image Credit: Dna-webmaster

Also, on January 2, 2016: Last quarter moon at apogee

Bottom line: In 2017, Earth’s closest point to the sun – called its perihelion – comes on January 4 at 11:48 UTC (6:48 a.m. EST).

A planisphere is virtually indispensable for beginning stargazers. Order your EarthSky Planisphere today!

Are the December solstice and January perihelion related?

Bruce McClure