ecliptic

Science Dictionary
ecliptic   (ĭ-klĭp'tĭk)  Pronunciation Key 
The great circle on the celestial sphere that represents the Sun's apparent path among the background stars in one year. The northernmost point this path reaches on the celestial sphere is the Tropic of Cancer, its southernmost point is the Tropic of capricorn, and it crosses the celestial equator at the points of vernal and autumnal equinox. ◇ The plane of the ecliptic is the imaginary plane that intersects the celestial sphere along the ecliptic, and the north and south ecliptic poles are the points where a perpendicular line through the middle of this plane intersect the sphere. The plane of the ecliptic corresponds to the plane in which the Earth orbits the Sun. If the Earth's axis were not tilted, the ecliptic would be identical to the celestial equator and the ecliptic poles identical to the celestial poles. In this case, the Sun's path would not move northward or southward from the equator during the year. As it is, the plane of the celestial equator is tilted 23.45° to the plane of the ecliptic, corresponding to the tilt of the Earth's axis with respect to its orbital plane, giving the Sun its apparent northward and southward movement among the background stars. See illustration at celestial sphere.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary
Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
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