An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth's axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the center of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth's equator. The term equinox can also be used in a broader sense, meaning the date when such a passage happens. The name "equinox" is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because around the equinox, the night and day are approximately equally long. It may be better understood to mean that latitudes +L and -L north and south of the Equator experience nights of equal length.
At an equinox, the Sun is at one of two opposite points on the celestial sphere where the celestial equator (i.e. declination 0) and ecliptic intersect. These points of intersection are called equinoctial points: classically, the vernal point and the autumnal point. By extension, the term equinox may denote an equinoctial point.
An equinox happens each year at two specific moments in time (rather than two whole days), when there is a location (the subsolar point) on the Earth's equator, where the center of the Sun can be observed to be vertically overhead, occurring around March 20/21 and September 22/23 each year.
Although the word equinox is often understood to mean "equal [day and] night," this is not strictly true. For most locations on earth, there are two distinct identifiable days per year when the length of day and night are closest to being equal; those days are referred to as the "equiluxes" to distinguish them from the equinoxes. Equinoxes are points in time, but equiluxes are days. By convention, equiluxes are the days where sunrise and sunset are closest to being exactly 12 hours apart.
- Vernal equinox and autumnal equinox: these classical names are direct derivatives of Latin (ver = spring and autumnus = autumn).
- March equinox and September equinox: a usage becoming the preferred standard by technical writers choosing to avoid Northern Hemisphere bias (implied by assuming that March is in the springtime and September is autumnal—true for those in the Northern Hemisphere but exactly opposite in the Southern Hemisphere).
- Northward equinox and southward equinox: names referring to the apparent motion of the Sun at the times of the equinox.
- Vernal point and autumnal point are the points on the celestial sphere where the Sun is located on the vernal equinox and autumnal equinox respectively (again, the seasonal attribution is that of the Northern Hemisphere).
- First point (or cusp) of Aries and first point of Libra are archaic names used by navigators and astrologers. Navigational ephemeris tables record the geographic position of the First Point of Aries as the reference for position of navigational stars. Due to the precession of the equinoxes, the astrological signs where these equinoxes are located no longer correspond with the actual constellations once ascribed to them. The equinoxes are currently in the constellations of Pisces and Virgo. However, modern astrologers assert that the tropical zodiac, and thus 0º degrees Aries, always begins at the Vernal Equinox. Such modern astrologers see the zodiacal signs as 30º segments of the tropical zodiac, always beginning with the Spring equinoctial point, so that the astrological zodiac has no relation to the stars, there being therefore no discrepancy due to precession.
Full article ▸