|UTC Date and Time of solstices and equinoxes|
An equinox is when the sun passes directly over the equator. There are two equinoxes each year. Equinox can also mean either of the two days when this happens. On these days, the nights are equal in length at latitudes L° North and L° South. The word equinox comes from two Latin words meaning "equal" and "night".
Around the day of the equinox, the length of the day is a little over twelve hours and the length of the night is a little under twelve hours. They are not exactly equal because the sun is not a point in the sky and because the sunlight bends as it comes to earth. The exact day and time when this happens depend on how far away from the equator it is being measured. They occur on or around March 21 and September 21. Solstices fall around June 21st and December 21st at odd intervals.
The time of daylight is quite easy to measure. This was done in many cultures where festivals were celebrated at the equinoxes.
Equinoxes on Earth
The equinoxes are the only times when the solar terminator (the "edge" between night and day) is perpendicular to the equator. As a result, the northern and southern hemispheres are equally illuminated. The word comes from Latin equi or "equal" and nox meaning "night".
In other words, the equinoxes are the only times when the subsolar point is on the equator, meaning that the Sun is exactly overhead at a point on the equatorial line. The subsolar point crosses the equator moving northward at the March equinox and southward at the September equinox.
The equinoxes, along with solstices, are directly related to the seasons of the year. In the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox (March) conventionally marks the beginning of spring in most cultures and is considered the New Year in the Persian calendar or Iranian calendars as Nowruz (means new day), while the autumnal equinox (September) marks the beginning of autumn.
When Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar in 45 BC, he set 25 March as the date of the spring equinox. Because the Julian year is longer than the tropical year by about 11.3 minutes on average (or 1 day in 128 years), the calendar "drifted" with respect to the two equinoxes — such that in AD 300 the spring equinox occurred on about 21 March, and by AD 1500 it had drifted backwards to 11 March.
This drift induced Pope Gregory XIII to create a modern Gregorian calendar. The Pope wanted to continue to conform with the edicts concerning the date of Easter of the Council of Nicaea of AD 325, which means he wanted to move the vernal equinox to the date on which it fell at that time (21 March is the day allocated to it in the Easter table of the Julian calendar). However, the leap year intervals in his calendar were not smooth (400 is not an exact multiple of 97). This causes the equinox to oscillate by about 53 hours around its mean position. This in turn raised the possibility that it could fall on 22 March, and thus Easter Day might theoretically commence before the equinox. The astronomers chose the appropriate number of days to omit so that the equinox would swing from 19 to 21 March but never fall on the 22nd (although it can in a handful of years fall early in the morning of that day in the Far East).
- Vernal equinox and autumnal equinox: these classical names are direct derivatives of Latin (ver = spring and autumnus = autumn). These are the historically universal and still most widely used terms for the equinoxes, but are potentially confusing because in the southern hemisphere the vernal equinox does not occur in spring and the autumnal equinox does not occur in autumn. The equivalent common language English terms spring equinox and autumn (or fall) equinox are even more ambiguous. It has become increasingly common for people to mistakenly refer to the September equinox in the southern hemisphere as the Vernal equinox.
- March equinox and September equinox: names referring to the months of the year they occur, with no ambiguity as to which hemisphere is the context. They are still not universal, however, as not all cultures use a solar-based calendar where the equinoxes occur every year in the same month (as they do not in the Islamic calendar and Hebrew calendar, for example). Although the terms have become very common in the 21st century, they were sometimes used at least as long ago as the mid-20th century.
- Northward equinox and southward equinox: names referring to the apparent direction of motion of the Sun. The northward equinox occurs in March when the sun crosses the equator from south to north, and the southward equinox occurs in September when the sun crosses the equator from north to south. These terms can be used unambiguously for other planets. They are rarely seen, although were first proposed over 100 years ago.
- First Point of Aries and first point of Libra: names referring to the astrological signs the sun is entering. Due to the precession of the equinoxes, however, the constellations where the equinoxes are currently located are Pisces and Virgo, respectively.
Images for kids
the sun at the equinox seen from the site of Pizzo Vento, Fondachelli-Fantina, Sicily
Equinox Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.