The astronomical unit is a unit of length, roughly the distance from Earth to the Sun. However, that varies as Earth orbits the Sun, from a maximum to a minimum. Originally conceived as the average of Earths aphelion and perihelion, it is now defined as exactly 149597870700 metres, the astronomical unit is used primarily as a convenient yardstick for measuring distances within the Solar System or around other stars. However, it is also a component in the definition of another unit of astronomical length. A variety of symbols and abbreviations have been in use for the astronomical unit. In a 1976 resolution, the International Astronomical Union used the symbol A for the astronomical unit, in 2006, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures recommended ua as the symbol for the unit. In 2012, the IAU, noting that various symbols are presently in use for the astronomical unit, in the 2014 revision of the SI Brochure, the BIPM used the unit symbol au. In ISO 80000-3, the symbol of the unit is ua. Earths orbit around the Sun is an ellipse, the semi-major axis of this ellipse is defined to be half of the straight line segment that joins the aphelion and perihelion. The centre of the sun lies on this line segment. In addition, it mapped out exactly the largest straight-line distance that Earth traverses over the course of a year, knowing Earths shift and a stars shift enabled the stars distance to be calculated. But all measurements are subject to some degree of error or uncertainty, improvements in precision have always been a key to improving astronomical understanding. Improving measurements were continually checked and cross-checked by means of our understanding of the laws of celestial mechanics, the expected positions and distances of objects at an established time are calculated from these laws, and assembled into a collection of data called an ephemeris. NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory provides one of several ephemeris computation services, in 1976, in order to establish a yet more precise measure for the astronomical unit, the IAU formally adopted a new definition. Equivalently, by definition, one AU is the radius of an unperturbed circular Newtonian orbit about the sun of a particle having infinitesimal mass. As with all measurements, these rely on measuring the time taken for photons to be reflected from an object. However, for precision the calculations require adjustment for such as the motions of the probe. In addition, the measurement of the time itself must be translated to a scale that accounts for relativistic time dilation
The red line indicates the Earth–Sun distance, which on average is about 1 astronomical unit.
Transits of Venus across the face of the Sun were, for a long time, the best method of measuring the astronomical unit, despite the difficulties (here, the so-called "black drop effect") and the rarity of observations.
The astronomical unit is used as the baseline of the triangle to measure stellar parallaxes (distances in the image are not to scale).