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FACT CHECK: Is the earth’s distance from the sun five light minutes or 90 million km?

BY Lanre Olagunju

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Several social media post claims that the distance between the sun and the earth is 90,000,000 km.

These posts were part of a Facebook message containing several claims related to a cosmological phenomenon known as aphelion. 

 

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“The distance between sun and earth is 90,000,000 km. But during this Aphelion Phenomenon, the distance between the two will increase to 152,000,000 km. That is a 66% increase, that affects human physiology,” the post partly reads.

Another “religious” Facebook user mentioned the same figure in a post buttressing that “God has no size”.

The post reads: “DO NOT TRY TO QUANTIFY GOD. GOD HAS NO SIZE. The distance from earth to the sun is 5 light minutes or 90,000,000 km. Yet, the Bible says that God makes heaven His throne and this earth His footstool (Isaiah 66:1). What is the distance between the earth and heaven? How Big Is God? God has no size!”

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The distance between the sun and the earth 

According to a May 2020 publication by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “the space beyond earth is so incredibly vast that units of measure which are convenient for us in our everyday lives can become GIGANTIC”.  

NASA puts the actual distance between the sun and the earth as “one astronomical unit (AU)”, which is about 93 million miles and approximately 150 million kilometres.  This is 60 million kilometres lesser than the distance given in the circulating Facebook message, giving a wide error margin of 66.6 percent.

Like AU, astronomers also use light years to quantify much greater distances like interstellar distance, because they both make astronomical distances more manageable. 

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NASA defines a light year as “the distance a photon of light travels in one year”. It is also “how far you’d travel in a year if you could travel at the speed of light”. 

According to NASA Science, “the sun is about 8 light minutes from earth”, a whooping 3 light minutes more than the distance being widely circulated in Facebook posts.

Distance between the sun and the earth during aphelion

Since the earth is not perfectly circular but an irregularly shaped ellipsoid, the aphelion is the point in its orbit around the sun when the earth is furthest away from the sun, and the perihelion is the point when the earth is closest to the sun.

Checks by TheCable revealed mathematical inaccuracy in the claim that during aphelion, the increase in the earth’s distance away from the sun moves up to 66 percent.

Though NASA puts the average distance between the earth and the sun as roughly 150 million km. During aphelion, it’s about 152.6 million km and 147.5 million kilometres at perihelion, an increase of 3.4% and not 66% as the story claimed. 

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Experts are of the opinion that this difference is too insignificant to cause major changes in weather conditions on the earth.

Verdict

The claim that the earth’s distance from the sun is five light minutes or 90,000,000 km is false. The actual distance between the sun and the earth is either, one astronomical unit (AU), which is about 93 million miles or about 150 million kilometres, or about 8 light minutes from the earth. 


This fact check was produced by TheCable with support from Code for Africa’s PesaCheck, International Fact-Checking Network, and African Fact Checking Alliance network.

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