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A year is the term for any period of time that is derived from the period of the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. In astronomy, several types of year are defined:

  • sidereal year: the actual period for the Earth to complete one revolution of its orbit, as measured in a fixed frame of reference (such as the fixed stars, Latin sidus). Its duration is on average:
365.256363051 days (at the epoch J2000 = 1 Jan. 2000 12h TT).
The actual duration varies from year to year because the motion of the Earth is influenced by the gravity of the Moon and other planets.

  • tropical year: the period for the Earth to complete one revolution with respect to the framework provided by the intersection of the ecliptic (the plane of the orbit of the Earth) and the plane of the equator (the plane perpendicular to the rotation axis of the Earth). Because of the precession, this framework moves slowly backwards along the ecliptic with respect to the fixed stars; as a consequence, the Earth completes this year before it completes a full orbit as measured in a fixed reference frame. Therefore a tropical year is shorter than the sidereal year: its duration (averaged over all tropical ecliptic points) was:
365.24218967 days (365d 5h 48m 45s) (at the epoch J2000).

  1. the perihelion, where the Earth is closest to the Sun (around 2 January), and
  2. the aphelion, where the Earth is furthest from the Sun (around 2 July).
Because of gravitational disturbances by the other planets, the shape and orientation of the orbit are not fixed, and the apsides slowly move with respect to a fixed frame of reference. Therefore the anomalistic year is slightly longer than the sidereal year: on average:
365.259635864 days (at the epoch J2000).

  • ecliptic year[?]: the period for the Earth to complete one revolution with respect to a node of the Moons orbit (the points where the Moon's orbit intersects the ecliptic). This period is associated with eclipses: these occur only when both the Sun and the Moon are near these nodes; so eclipses occur within about a month every half ecliptic year. The average duration of the eclipse year is:
346.620075883 days (at the epoch J2000).

Calendars usually try to match some tropical year, because the seasons and their cardinal points are determined by this sort of year. For practical reasons, a calendar year consists of an integer number of days. In the calendar currently in use in western societies, the Gregorian Calendar, most years have 365 days. In order to keep synchronized with the March equinox tropical year (365.2424 days), almost every 4th year gets 366 days: this is called a leap year. The most important current exception is the Islamic calendar, a lunar calendar without leap years, in which holidays move through the seasons.

Julian year: 365.25 days, the average length of the year in the Julian Calendar.

Besselian year: this is a tropical year that starts when the mean Sun reaches the ecliptic longitude of 280 deg. This is always on or close to the 1st day of January. It is named after the 19th-century astronomer and mathematician Friedrich Bessel. An approximate formula to compute the current time in Besselian years from the Julian day is:

B = 2000 + (JD - 2451544.53)/365.242189

The term year is also used to refer to the length of time it takes other planets to orbit the Sun, or, in other solar systems, their star. This distinction is made through use of a preceding adjective, such as: "the Martian year."

See also calendar year, fiscal year, leap year, solar year, tropical year, time

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