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Happy Perihelion Day 2020! Earth Is Closest to the Sun Today

One of the astronauts of Expedition 36 to the International Space Station took this photo on May 21, 2013. In this view from one of the windows of the orbiting laboratory, the sun shines in a "starburst" mode above Earth's horizon.
One of the astronauts of Expedition 36 to the International Space Station took this photo on May 21, 2013. In this view from one of the windows of the orbiting laboratory, the sun shines in a "starburst" mode above Earth's horizon. (Image credit: NASA)

Planet Earth is having its annual close encounter of the stellar kind this weekend. 

There's nothing unusual about the planet being a little closer to the sun; it's a normal occurrence that happens near the start of the calendar year. Earth travels in an elliptical orbit, so its distance from the sun changes throughout its 365.25 day journey. (Side note: the quarter days are what prompt a leap year every four years.)

Earth reaches perihelion — the term for its closest approach to the sun — on Sunday (Jan. 5) at 2:48 a.m. EST (0748 GMT), according to For those living on the U.S. West Coast, the moment occurs on Jan. 4 at 11:48 p.m. PST. Half a year later, on July 4, Earth will reach aphelion — its most distant point from the sun. 

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The sun radiates huge amounts of electromagnetic energy in all directions. Earth is only one small recipient of the sun's energy; the sun's rays extend far out into the solar system, illuminating all the other planets.

An illustration of perihelion and aphelion in the Earth's orbit around the sun, as well as the moon's apogee and perigee in its orbit around planet Earth.  (Image credit: NASA)

At the time of perihelion, Earth is about 91,398,199 miles (147,091,144 kilometers) away from the sun. On average, Earth's distance from the sun is 92,955,807 miles (149,597,870 km). When our planet reaches aphelion in July, it will be 94,507,635 miles (152,095,295 km) away. 

Earth doesn't feel warmer for the Northern Hemisphere when perihelion occurs. That's because the ellipse in which our planet orbits is not extreme, but almost circular. The cause of seasonal changes is the tilt in the planet's axis. Perihelion and aphelion don't cause the seasons, but they do affect the length of the seasons. 

This is something like what Earth experiences during this time of year. The planet's close approach to the sun causes it to travel slightly faster. The faster trip means a short duration for winter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer in the Southern Hemisphere, according to Thus, winters in the Northern Hemisphere are about five days shorter than the summer, and summers in the Southern Hemisphere are five days shorter than winter.

The December solstice is seen from space in this satellite image captured at the start of the decade, on Dec. 21, 2010. The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its southernmost position in Earth's sky — which is possible thanks to the planet's tilted axis — and marks the changing of the seasons.

(Image credit: Robert Simmon/NASA/2010 EUMETSAT)

But again, the seasons are controlled by Earth's tilted axis, not its distance from the sun. 

"The sun is the big controller of the radiation that the Earth receives," Walter Petersen, a research physical scientist in the Earth science branch at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, told in 2018. "But even when you take into account that difference in distance between aphelion and perihelion, there's only about a 7 percent difference in average global [solar energy] that we receive. And so it doesn't amount to a great deal in terms of weather."

Follow Doris Elin Urrutia on Twitter @salazar_elin. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Doris Elin Urrutia

Doris Elin Urrutia joined as an intern in the summer of 2017. She received a B.A. in Sociology and Communications at Fordham University in New York City. Her work was previously published in collaboration with London Mining Network. Her passion for geology and the cosmos started when she helped her sister build a model solar system in a Bronx library. Doris also likes learning new ways to prepare the basil sitting on her windowsill. Follow her on twitter at @salazar_elin.