The sun is at the heart of the solar system. All of the bodies in the solar system — planets, asteroids, comets, etc. — revolve around it. The distance from Earth to the sun is called an astronomical unit, or AU, which is used to measure distances throughout the solar system. The AU has been defined as 149,597,870,700 meters (92,955,807 miles).

Astronomers use the AU for measuring distances throughout the solar system. Jupiter, for example, is 5.2 AU from the sun. Neptune is 30.07 AU from the sun. On the outer edges of the solar system, the Oort Cloud, where comets are thought to originate, is 100,000 AU from the sun. The distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is about 250,000 AU. However, to measure longer distances, astronomers use light-years, or the distance that light travels in a single Earth year, which is equal to 63,239 AU. So Proxima Centauri is about 4.2 light-years away.

Artists rendering of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.
Artists rendering of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.
Credit: NASA

Elliptical orbit

The AU is the average distance from the Earth to the sun. Earth makes a complete revolution around the sun every 365.25 days ­— one year. However, Earth's orbit is not a perfect circle; it is shaped more like an oval, or an ellipse. Over the course of a year, Earth moves sometimes closer to the sun and sometimes farther away from the sun. Earth's closest approach to the sun, called perihelion, comes in early January and is about 91 million miles (146 million km). The farthest from the sun Earth gets is called aphelion. It comes in early July and is about 94.5 million miles (152 million km).

Finding the distance

Historically, the first person to measure the distance to the sun was Aristarchus around the year 250 BC. In more recent times, astronomer Christiaan Huygens calculated the distance from Earth to the sun in 1653. He used the phases of Venus to find the angles in a Venus-Earth-Sun triangle. For example, when Venus appears half illuminated by the sun, the three bodies form a right triangle from Earth's perspective. Guessing (correctly, by chance) the size of Venus, Huygens was able to determine the distance from Venus to Earth, and knowing that distance, plus the angles made by the triangle, he was able to measure the distance to the sun. However, because Huygens' method was partly guesswork and not completely scientifically grounded, he usually doesn't get the credit.

In 1672, Giovanni Cassini used a method involving parallax, or angular difference, to find the distance to Mars and at the same time figured out the distance to the sun. He sent a colleague, Jean Richer, to French Guiana while he stayed in Paris. They took measurements of the position of Mars relative to background stars, and triangulated those measurements with the known distance between Paris and French Guiana. Once they had the distance to Mars, they could also calculate the distance to the sun. Since his methods were more scientific, he usually gets the credit.

New equation

With the advent of spacecraft and radar, there were now methods for making a direct measure of the distance between the Earth and the sun. The definition of AU had been "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)." 

Along with making things unnecessarily difficult for astronomy professors, that definition actually didn't jibe with general relativity. Using the old definition, the value of AU would change depending on an observer's location in the solar system. If an observer on Jupiter used the old definition to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun, the measurement would vary from one made on Earth by about 1,000 meters (3,280 feet).

Moreover, the Gaussian constant depends on the mass of the sun, and because the sun loses mass as it radiates energy, the value of AU was changing along with it.

The International Astronomical Union voted in August 2012 to change the definition of the astronomical unit to a plain old number: 149,597,870,700 meters. The measurement is based on the speed of light, a fixed distance that has nothing to do with the sun's mass. A meter is defined as the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in 1 / 299,792,458 of a second.

— Tim Sharp, Reference Editor