The Equinox is coming. So is the Equilux. So what’s the difference? About four days.

A term from astronomy that has entered common use is Equinox, which translated from its Latin roots roughly means “Equal Night.” Most people think that the Spring (or Vernal) Equinox and the Fall (or Autumnal) Equinox are the days when the length of the daylight and the length of the night are equal. Close, but not quite right.

As the days lengthen from winter toward summer, there certainly is a day during which the length of time we see sunlight and the length of time it’s dark are roughly the same. Technically, however, the timing of each Equinox is defined as the moment when the earth passes a particular point in its orbit around the sun. It’s not defined by the local length of the day.

We have extended our imaginations into space, and covered it with geometric patterns. One of those patterns is an imaginary circle that runs around the entire sky and is called the ecliptic. This is the circle that marks the apparent position of the sun throughout each year, relative to the background stars. It’s called “ecliptic” because of its importance in determining the dates of eclipses. For a lunar or a solar eclipse to take place, the sun, moon, and earth all have to be in alignment with the ecliptic.

Because much of the solar system is in a pretty flat configuration, most of what happens in the solar system also happens near the ecliptic. The orbits of the earth, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and many other things in the solar system lie in more or less the same plane. So, when you are able to spot any of the planets you’re seeing, approximately, where the ecliptic lies in the sky.

Another similar geometric pattern or circle that is projected into the sky for practical reasons is defined by the earth’s own equator. Astronomers can plot a line across the sky which corresponds, in the “up” direction, to where the equator is on earth. If that’s a little hard to envision, just consider the North Star, Polaris. By accident it sits within a degree of the place in the sky directly above the earth’s north pole (the rotational pole, not the magnetic pole. They’re different things, for another day). From Polaris the celestial equator is 90 degrees south in all directions.

Right. So, two circles projected up in the sky (Picture an orange with two rubber bands around its middle that cross each other as viewed from the inside). They are tilted with respect to each other by the same amount as the earth’s rotation is tilted relative to the position of the sun – around 23 degrees. Each Equinox is defined as the time at which the earth passes the place where the two lines cross. At that moment, the terminator – the place where the sunlit side of the earth and the night side of the earth meet – is at right angles to the earth’s equator.

Now, you’d think that this perpendicular arrangement would mean day and night are of equal length, and geometrically it’s true. However, what we actually see is much more complicated. The apparent length of daylight and night differs from place to place on earth. One of the big factors is the bending effect of the earth’s atmosphere. We sit under an ocean of air, and one of the consequences of our atmosphere is that light is bent as it comes in from space; air acts like a huge lens. The closer an object is to the horizon (like the sun at sunset or sunrise) the more the bending is apparent. This is because the light at these low angles must pass through much more air to reach us. It acts as a thicker lens closer to the horizon.

The consequence of this bending of sunlight is that the time something actually happens in the sky is not necessarily the time we see it happening from our vantage point under the atmosphere. In fact, this bending is enough that at the horizon it’s enough to make the sun appear to be more than its own diameter “earlier” in rising than it would without the atmosphere there. A staggering thought – when we see the sun just getting up over the horizon in the morning, it’s actually still below the horizon geometrically!

The other factor is the apparent size of the sun. From the earth’s perspective the sun is about a half a degree across, compared to the whole 360 degrees of the sky. Sunrise and sunset do not happen instantaneously. Sunrise is defined as the moment that the sun’s disk just appears on the horizon for any particular morning. Sunset is defined as the moment when the last bit of the sun just disappears past the horizon from any particular location.

These two things combined are enough of an effect that the Equilux, the day that has equal hours and minutes of sun above and below the horizon, is about four days before the Vernal Equinox and about four days after the Autumnal Equinox in the area of Hamilton, Ontario. The timing of the Equilux may be different in your location. In 2013 the Spring Equilux – the date that daylight and nighttime hours are closest to being 12 and 12 – falls on 16 March. The corresponding Equinox this year takes place about 7:02 AM on 20 March.

In September 2013 the Autumnal Equinox, marking the official beginning of fall, is at 4:44 PM on the 22nd. The Fall Equilux, however, for Hamilton is on 25 September.

Sources:

  • Thanks to the on-line calendar of the Hamilton Amateur Astronomers for the Equilux and Equinox dates and times for 2013. http://amateurastronomy.org/
Copyright © David Allan Galbraith 2013
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