Equinox and Epoch

Equinox and Epoch

The word epoch denotes a particular point in time. In this sense the word has the same meaning in astronomy as it has in day-to-day life. For example, epoch J2000 means the time corresponding to the Julian date 2451545.0 in the concerned time system. In the Gregorian calendar this is 2000/1/1 12:00:00.

If we record the coordinates of a comet on 2011/11/11 11:11:11 UTC in the Gregorian calendar, then the epoch of the coordinates is 2011/11/11 11:11:11 UTC, or equivalently the Julian date 2455876.966099537 UTC. At a different time i.e., epoch, say 2011/11/11 22:22:22, the comet would have moved some distance and will have a different set of coordinates.

Due to precession the reference point for celestial coordinates, the vernal equinox, is continuously changing. So when specifying coordinates of a body we need to specify the location of the vernal equinox, which then fixes the orientation of the coordinate system. We do this by mentioning that the coordinate system is defined by the location of the vernal equinox at a particular time. This time i.e., epoch is referred to as the equinox of the coordinates.

In catalogs, we usually find entries such as (RA, DE) equinox J2000 epoch J2000. This means that the given (RA, DE) is the coordinate of the star at the time J2000 (epoch J2000), in the coordinate system defined by the vernal equinox at the time J2000 (equinox J2000).

If the star has proper motion, then we need to apply proper motion from J2000 to the epoch of interest to get the position of the star at this time. If the epoch of interest is 2010/10/10, then the epoch of the coordinates after applying proper motion from J2000 to 2010/10/10, is 2010/10/10, but its equinox remains at J2000.

Going back to the example of the comet, assume that the coordinates were measured using the known equinox J2000 positions of stars in an image. In this situation, the equinox of the comet’s coordinates is J2000, but its epoch is the time of observation i.e., 2011/11/11 11:11:11.

Suppose we want to point a telescope at the comet, at the time 2011/11/11 12:00:00. Then we need to take the coordinates at equinox J2000 epoch 2011/11/11 11:11:11, apply proper motion to find the coordinates at equinox J2000 epoch 2011:11:11 12:00:00, then precess the equinox from J2000 to 2011:11:11 12:00:00 to get the position at equinox 2011/11/11 12:00:00 epoch 2011/11/11 12:00:00, and then convert (RA, DE) to (Azimuth, Elevation).

To flog a dead horse, we precess from one equinox to the next but we apply proper motion from one epoch to the next.

The modern celestial coordinate system, ICRS, does not refer to the vernal equinox, and its reference axes are fixed in space. Due to this coordinates in the ICRS system do not have an associated equinox. They only have an epoch.


About Prasanth Nair

Prasanth Nair is a freelance software developer with strong interests in STEM education research, especially Physics Education Research.
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3 Responses to Equinox and Epoch

  1. Gandalf Saxe says:

    That was a good explanation. Thank you.

  2. Casey Heeg says:

    Very interesting — I came across your article while searching for an explanation of why we say “J2000 equinox”. I have always understood “equinox” to refer to the moment when the Sun crosses the equator, on March 21st. Since the Sun was no where near crossing the equator at the moment of J2000 (January 1, 2000 at 12h TT), I could not figure out how the term equinox could be applied to this epoch.

    Your article suggests that equinox J2000 is really a reference frame in which the X axis points to the place on the celestial sphere that we call the vernal equinox, at the moment of the J2000 epoch — is that right? Assuming so, how do we determine where that point on the celestial sphere is on January 1? Wouldn’t it be a slightly different point on January 1 than it is on March 21?

    Thanks for writing this article — in case you have a chance to answer my question, I’d really appreciate your thoughts!

    • Prasanth says:

      Yes it would be, but only by a very small amount, due to precession of Earth.

      The equinox you are referring to is the time when the Sun, as viewed from Earth, reaches this reference point on the celestial sphere, which occurs around March 21st of each year.

      The Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equinox has some more information on this.

      Hope this helps.

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