Vernal Equinox

The March equinox or Northward equinox is the equinox on the Earth when the subsolar point appears to leave the southern hemisphere and cross the celestial equator, heading northward as seen from Earth. In the Northern Hemisphere the March equinox is known as the vernal equinox, and in the Southern Hemisphere as the autumnal equinox. On the Gregorian calendar the Northward equinox can occur as early as 19 March or as late as 21 March. For a common year the computed time slippage is about 5 hours 49 minutes later than the previous year, and for a leap year about 18 hours 11 minutes earlier than the previous year. Balancing the increases of the common years against the losses of the leap years keeps the calendar date of the March equinox from drifting more than one day from 20 March each year. The March equinox may be taken to mark the beginning of spring and the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere but marks the beginning of autumn and the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

The March equinox is one point in time commonly used to determine the length of the tropical year. The mean tropical year is the average of all the tropical years measured from every point along the Earth’s orbit. When tropical year measurements from several successive years are compared, many slight variations are found which are due to a variety of phenomenon, including nutation and the planetary perturbations from the Sun. the mean Tropical year lasts 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45 seconds.

The point where the Sun crosses the celestial equator northwards is called the First Point of Aries. However, due to the precession of the equinoxes, this point is no longer in the constellation Aries, but rather in Pisces. By the year 2600 it will be in Aquarius. The Earth’s axis causes the First Point of Aries to travel westwards across the sky at a rate of roughly one degree every 72 years. Based on the modern constellation boundaries, the northward equinox passed from Taurus into Aries in the year −1865 (1866 BC), passed into Pisces in the year −67 (68 BC), will pass into Aquarius in the year 2597, and will pass into Capricornus in the year 4312. It passed by (but not into) a ‘corner’ of Cetus at 0°10′ distance in the year 1489. On the day of an equinox, the Sun’s disk crosses the Earth’s horizon directly to the east at dawn—rising; and again, some 12 hours later, directly to the west at dusk—setting. The March equinox, like all equinoxes, is characterized by having an almost exactly equal amount of daylight and night across most latitudes on Earth.

Due to refraction of light rays in the Earth’s atmosphere the Sun is visible above the horizon even when its disc is completely below the limb of the Earth. Additionally, when seen from the Earth, the Sun is a bright disc in the sky and not just a point of light, thus sunrise and sunset can be said to start several minutes before the sun’s geometric center even crosses the horizon, and extends equally long after. These conditions produce differentials of actual durations of light and darkness at various locations on Earth during an equinox. This is most notable at the more extreme latitudes, where the Sun may be seen to travel sideways considerably during the dawn and evening, drawing out the transition from day to night. At the north or south poles, the Sun appears to move steadily around the horizon, and just above the horizon, neither rising nor setting apart from a slight change in declination of about 0.39° per day as the equinox passes.

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