Vernal Equinox, 2024

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The 2024 Vernal Equinox sky as it would appear without the atmosphere, revealing 2 major planets to the east and 2 to the west of the sun. Image via Stellarium for the web.

The Vernal Equinox, the Astronomical beginning of spring, occurs this year today, Tuesday, 19 March, 2024 at 3:06 UTC (11:06 PM EDT).

What’s so special about this event?

  1. 12 equal hours of daylight and darkness everywhere on the planet.
  2. The beginning of Astronomical Autumn for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere
  3. The sun rises due east and sets due west at any point on the planet
  4. The sun’s elevation above the nearest horizon (southern horizon for Northern Hemisphere observers and northern horizon for Southern Hemisphere observers) is exactly equal to the compliment of their latitude. For example, if your latitude is +40 (40 degrees north latitude), the elevation of the sun would be 50 degrees above the southern horizon.
  5. At the Vernal (March) and Autumnal (September) equinox, the sun is directly above Earth’s equator.

The Earth’s Orbit

The Earth orbits the sun in a specific equatorial plane known as the “Plane of the Ecliptic” and the sun traces an imaginary line on the sky as it appears to move from east to west. This apparent motion of the sun is caused by the Earth’s west to east (counterclockwise) rotation. As inhabitants of the surface, this translates into an apparent motion of the sun across the sky. The imaginary line traced out by the sun is known simply as the “Ecliptic”.

Another aspect of the Celestial Coordinate system that plays a key role is the “Celestial Equator”, the projection of the Earth’s Equator onto the sky. This imaginary line has a Declination (celestial latitude) of 0, just like the actual equator on the earth. This is the key factor that provides for due east-west rising and setting of the sun and equal hours of daylight and darkness.

At the Vernal (March) and Autumnal (September) equinox, the sun is directly above Earth’s equator.

What does the “Astronomical Beginning of Spring” mean?

The Astronomical Beginning of Spring is a convention, marking the first point since the beginning of the New Year (January 1st) when the sun, seemingly traveling along the Ecliptic, crosses the Celestial equator.

Like the Vernal Equinox, the Astronomical Beginning of Autumn occurs on or near September 21 of each year and marks the 2nd and last time after the New Year there are equal hours of daylight and darkness; this, in addition to all the other aspects of these 2 singular seasonal occurrences listed above.

Note: the word equinox derives from the Latin words for “equal night”: aequus (equal) and nox (night).

Major Planets

Mars is hovering just above the eastern horizon at 5:55 AM EDT in the pre-dawn hours of the Vernal Equinox, March 19. Venus will follow shortly but gets lost in the glare of the sun. The prominent constellations of summer, Sagittarius and Scorpio are visible, as the majestic Galactic Center approaches the meridian.

Mars is hovering just above the eastern horizon at 5:55 AM EDT in the pre-dawn hours of the Vernal Equinox, March 19. Venus will follow shortly but gets lost in the glare of the sun. The prominent constellations of summer, Sagittarius and Scorpio are visible, as the majestic Galactic Center approaches the meridian. Image via Stellarium for the web.



A quick, interactive web-based version of Stellarium is available here Tonight's Sky. When you launch the application, it defaults to north-facing and your location (on mobile and desktop).



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