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Solar System

Earth is the third planet from the Sun, after Mercury and Venus. The average distance between Earth and the Sun is 150 million km (93 million mi). Earth and all the other planets in the solar system revolve, or orbit, around the Sun due to the force of gravitation. The Earth travels at a velocity of about 107,000 km/h (about 67,000 mph) as it orbits the Sun. All but one of the planets orbit the Sun in the same plane—that is, if an imaginary line were extended from the center of the Sun to the outer regions of the solar system, the orbital paths of the planets would intersect that line. The exception is the dwarf planet Pluto, which has an eccentric (unusual) orbit.

Earth’s orbital path is not quite a perfect circle but instead is slightly elliptical (oval-shaped). For example, at maximum distance Earth is about 152 million km (about 95 million mi) from the Sun; at minimum distance Earth is about 147 million km (about 91 million mi) from the Sun. If Earth orbited the Sun in a perfect circle, it would always be the same distance from the Sun.

The solar system, in turn, is part of the Milky Way Galaxy, a collection of billions of stars bound together by gravity. The Milky Way has armlike discs of stars that spiral out from its center. The solar system is located in one of these spiral arms, known as the Orion arm, which is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the Galaxy. In most parts of the Northern Hemisphere, this disc of stars is visible on a summer night as a dense band of light known as the Milky Way.

Earth is the fifth largest planet in the solar system. Its diameter, measured around the equator, is 12,756 km (7,926 mi). Earth is not a perfect sphere but is slightly flattened at the poles. Its polar diameter, measured from the North Pole to the South Pole, is somewhat less than the equatorial diameter because of this flattening. Although Earth is the largest of the four planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars—that make up the inner solar system (the planets closest to the Sun), it is small compared with the giant planets of the outer solar system—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. For example, the largest planet, Jupiter, has a diameter at its equator of 143,000 km (89,000 mi), 11 times greater than that of Earth. A famous atmospheric feature on Jupiter, the Great Red Spot, is so large that three Earths would fit inside it.

Earth has one natural satellite, the Moon. The Moon orbits the Earth, completing one revolution in an elliptical path in 27 days 7 hr 43 min 11.5 sec. The Moon orbits the Earth because of the force of Earth’s gravity. However, the Moon also exerts a gravitational force on the Earth. Evidence for the Moon’s gravitational influence can be seen in the ocean tides. A popular theory suggests that the Moon split off from Earth more than 4 billion years ago when a large meteorite or small planet struck the Earth.

As Earth revolves around the Sun, it rotates, or spins, on its axis, an imaginary line that runs between the North and South poles. The period of one complete rotation is defined as a day and takes 23 hr 56 min 4.1 sec. The period of one revolution around the Sun is defined as a year, or 365.2422 solar days, or 365 days 5 hr 48 min 46 sec. Earth also moves along with the Milky Way Galaxy as the Galaxy rotates and moves through space. It takes more than 200 million years for the stars in the Milky Way to complete one revolution around the Galaxy’s center.

Earth’s axis of rotation is inclined (tilted) 23.5° relative to its plane of revolution around the Sun. This inclination of the axis creates the seasons and causes the height of the Sun in the sky at noon to increase and decrease as the seasons change. The Northern Hemisphere receives the most energy from the Sun when it is tilted toward the Sun. This orientation corresponds to summer in the Northern Hemisphere and winter in the Southern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere receives maximum energy when it is tilted toward the Sun, corresponding to summer in the Southern Hemisphere and winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Fall and spring occur in between these orientations.

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