Epoch and Equinox

We use the term epoch (of a given date) to refer to the actual measured coordinates of a star that takes into account precession, nutation, and proper motion. The term equinox means that the coordinates have been precessed to a given date, but that other factors affecting a star’s position have not been applied. So, equinox 2000.0 is not the same as epoch 2000.0.

Example: Barnard’s Star

Epoch 2000.0 coordinates: α = 17h 57m 48.49803s, δ = +4° 41′ 36.2072″ (the actual position of Barnard’s Star at 0h UT on January 1, 2000, accounting for precession, nutation, and proper motion)

Equinox 2017.1 coordinates: α = 17h 58m 39.20689s, δ = +4° 41′ 33.5614″ (coordinates have been precessed from epoch 2000.0 above to today’s date, but nutation and proper motion have not been applied)

Epoch 2017.1 coordinates: α = 17h 58m 37.85s, δ = +4° 44′ 37.8″ (the actual position of Barnard’s Star on January 19, 2017, accounting for precession, nutation, and proper motion)

Sometimes, the epochal coordinates are further adjusted to account for aberration and atmospheric refraction.  The latter tends to “lift” stars towards the zenith—the closer to the horizon the greater the lift.

Eugène Delporte and the Constellation Jigsaw

Belgian astronomer Eugène Joseph Delporte (1882-1955) discovered 66 asteroids from 1925 to 1942, but he is best remembered for determining the official boundaries of the 88 constellations, work he completed in 1928 and published in 1930.  The constellation boundaries have remained unchanged since then.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded, incidentally, in Brussels, Belgium in 1919, established the number of constellations at 88—the same number, coincidentally, as the keys on a piano—in 1922 under the guidance of American astronomer Henry Norris Russell (1877-1957).  The IAU officially adopted Delporte’s constellation boundaries in 1928.

All the constellation boundaries lie along lines of constant right ascension and declination—as they existed in the year 1875. Why 1875 and not 1900, 1925, or 1930? American astronomer Benjamin Gould (1824-1896) had already drawn up southern constellation boundaries for epoch 1875, and Delporte built upon Gould’s earlier work.

As the direction of the Earth’s polar axis slowly changes due to precession, the constellation boundaries gradually tilt so that they no longer fall upon lines of constant right ascension and declination. Eventually, the tilt of the constellation boundaries will become large enough that the boundaries will probably be redefined to line up with the equatorial coordinate grid for some future epoch. When that happens, some borderline stars will move into an adjacent constellation. Even now, every year some stars change constellations because proper motion causes them to move across a constellation boundary. For faint stars, this happens frequently, but for bright stars such a constellation switch is exceedingly rare.