Does the equinox sun really rise due east and set due west?
The March 2019 equinox happens on March 20 at 21:58 Universal Time, which is 4:58 p.m. Central Daylight Time for us in the central U.S. Translate to your time zone. What’s more, the March 2019 full moon comes less than four hours later, to stage the closest coincidence of the March equinox with the full moon since March 20, 2000.
The March equinox heralds the arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. On this day, the sun rises due east and sets due west.
It may seem counterintuitive. But it’s true no matter where you live on Earth (except the North and South Poles, where there is no east or west).
To understand the due-east and due-west rising and setting of an equinox sun, you have to think of the reality of Earth in space. First think of why the sun’s path across our sky shifts from season to season. It’s because our world is tilted on its axis with respect to its orbit around the sun.
Now think about what an equinox is. It’s an event that happens on the imaginary dome of Earth’s sky. It marks that special moment when the sun crosses the celestial equator going from south to north. And it also, of course, represents a point on Earth’s orbit.
The celestial equator is a great circle dividing the imaginary celestial sphere into its northern and southern hemispheres. The celestial equator wraps the sky directly above Earth’s equator. At the March equinox, the sun crosses the celestial equator to enter the sky’s Northern Hemisphere.
All these components are imaginary, yet what happens at every equinox is very real – as real as the sun’s passage across the sky each day and as real as the change of the seasons.
No matter where you are on Earth (except for the North and South Poles), you have a due east and due west point on your horizon. That point marks the intersection of your horizon with the celestial equator, the imaginary great circle above the true equator of the Earth.
And that’s why the sun rises due east and sets due west, for all of us, at the equinox. The equinox sun is on the celestial equator. No matter where you are on Earth, the celestial equator intersects your horizon at due east and due west.
This fact makes the day of an equinox a good day for finding due east and due west from your yard or other favorite site for watching the sky. Just go outside around sunset or sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to familiar landmarks.
If you do this, you’ll be able to use those landmarks to find those cardinal directions in the weeks and months ahead, long after Earth has moved on in its orbit around the sun, carrying the sunrise and sunset points northward.
Our ancestors may not have understood the equinoxes and solstices as events that occur in the course of Earth’s yearly orbit around the sun. But if they were observant – and some were very observant indeed – they surely marked the day of the equinox as being midway between the sun’s lowest path across the sky in winter and highest path across the sky in summer.
If they thought in terms of four directions, they might also have learned a fact of nature that occurs whenever there’s an equinox: each midway point between the sun’s lowest and highest path.
That is, the sun rises due east and sets due west on the day of the equinox, as seen from everywhere on the globe.
Bottom line: The 2019 March equinox comes on March 20 at 21:58 UTC (4:58 p.m. CDT; translate to your time zone). At the equinox, the sun rises due east and sets due west.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky’s popular Tonight pages since 2004. He’s a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.