Epoch (astronomy)

In astronomy, an epoch is a moment in time used as a reference point for some time-varying astronomical quantity, such as the celestial coordinates or elliptical orbital elements of a celestial body, because these are subject to perturbations and vary with time.[1] These time-varying astronomical quantities might include, for example, the mean longitude or mean anomaly of a body, the node of its orbit relative to a reference plane, the direction of the apogee or aphelion of its orbit, or the size of the major axis of its orbit.

The main use of astronomical quantities specified in this way is to calculate other relevant parameters of motion, in order to predict future positions and velocities. The applied tools of the disciplines of celestial mechanics or its subfield orbital mechanics (for predicting orbital paths and positions for bodies in motion under the gravitational effects of other bodies) can be used to generate an ephemeris, a table of values giving the positions and velocities of astronomical objects in the sky at a given time or times.

Astronomical quantities can be specified in any of several ways, for example, as a polynomial function of the time-interval, with an epoch as a temporal point of origin (this is a common current way of using an epoch). Alternatively, the time-varying astronomical quantity can be expressed as a constant, equal to the measure that it had at the epoch, leaving its variation over time to be specified in some other way—for example, by a table, as was common during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The word epoch was often used in a different way in older astronomical literature, e.g. during the 18th century, in connection with astronomical tables. At that time, it was customary to denote as "epochs", not the standard date and time of origin for time-varying astronomical quantities, but rather the values at that date and time of those time-varying quantities themselves.[2] In accordance with that alternative historical usage, an expression such as 'correcting the epochs' would refer to the adjustment, usually by a small amount, of the values of the tabulated astronomical quantities applicable to a fixed standard date and time of reference (and not, as might be expected from current usage, to a change from one date and time of reference to a different date and time).

Epoch versus equinox

Astronomical data are often specified not only in their relation to an epoch or date of reference but also in their relations to other conditions of reference, such as coordinate systems specified by "equinox", or "equinox and equator", or "equinox and ecliptic" – when these are needed for fully specifying astronomical data of the considered type.

Date-references for coordinate systems

When the data are dependent for their values on a particular coordinate system, the date of that coordinate system needs to be specified directly or indirectly.

Celestial coordinate systems most commonly used in astronomy are equatorial coordinates and ecliptic coordinates. These are defined relative to the (moving) vernal equinox position, which itself is determined by the orientations of the Earth's rotation axis and orbit around the Sun. Their orientations vary (though slowly, e.g. due to precession), and there is an infinity of such coordinate systems possible. Thus the coordinate systems most used in astronomy need their own date-reference because the coordinate systems of that type are themselves in motion, e.g. by the precession of the equinoxes, nowadays often resolved into precessional components, separate precessions of the equator and of the ecliptic.

The epoch of the coordinate system need not be the same, and often in practice is not the same, as the epoch for the data themselves.

The difference between reference to an epoch alone, and a reference to a certain equinox with equator or ecliptic, is therefore that the reference to the epoch contributes to specifying the date of the values of astronomical variables themselves; while the reference to an equinox along with equator/ecliptic, of a certain date, addresses the identification of, or changes in, the coordinate system in terms of which those astronomical variables are expressed. (Sometimes the word 'equinox' may be used alone, e.g. where it is obvious from the context to users of the data in which form the considered astronomical variables are expressed, in equatorial form or ecliptic form.)

The equinox with equator/ecliptic of a given date defines which coordinate system is used. Most standard coordinates in use today refer to 2000 TT (i.e. to 12h on the Terrestrial Time scale on January 1, 200-), which occurred about 64 seconds sooner than noon UT1 on the same date (see ΔT). Before about 1984, coordinate systems dated to 1950 or 1900 were commonly used.

There is a special meaning of the expression "equinox (and ecliptic/equator) of date". When coordinates are expressed as polynomials in time relative to a reference frame defined in this way, that means the values obtained for the coordinates in respect of any interval t after the stated epoch, are in terms of the coordinate system of the same date as the obtained values themselves, i.e. the date of the coordinate system is equal to (epoch + t).[3]

It can be seen that the date of the coordinate system need not be the same as the epoch of the astronomical quantities themselves. But in that case (apart from the "equinox of date" case described above), two dates will be associated with the data: one date is the epoch for the time-dependent expressions giving the values, and the other date is that of the coordinate system in which the values are expressed.

For example, orbital elements, especially osculating elements for minor planets, are routinely given with reference to two dates: first, relative to a recent epoch for all of the elements: but some of the data are dependent on a chosen coordinate system, and then it is usual to specify the coordinate system of a standard epoch which often is not the same as the epoch of the data. An example is as follows: For minor planet (5145) Pholus, orbital elements have been given including the following data:[4]

Epoch 2010 Jan. 4.0 TT . . . = JDT 2455200.5
M 72.00071 . . . . . . . .(2000.0)
n. 0.01076162 .. . . . Peri . 354.75938
a 20.3181594 . . . . . Node . 119.42656
e. 0.5715321 . . . . . Incl .. 24.66109

where the epoch is expressed in terms of Terrestrial Time, with an equivalent Julian date. Four of the elements are independent of any particular coordinate system: M is mean anomaly (deg), n: mean daily motion (deg/d), a: size of semi-major axis (AU), e: eccentricity (dimensionless). But the argument of perihelion, longitude of the ascending node and the inclination are all coordinate-dependent, and are specified relative to the reference frame of the equinox and ecliptic of another date "2000.0", otherwise known as J2000, i.e. January 1.5, 2000 (12h on January 1) or JD 2451545.0.[5]

Epochs and periods of validity

In the particular set of coordinates exampled above, much of the time-dependence of the elements has been omitted as unknown or undetermined; for example, the element n allows an approximate time-dependence of the element M to be calculated, but the other elements and n itself are treated as constant, which represents a temporary approximation (see Osculating elements).

Thus a particular coordinate system (equinox and equator/ecliptic of a particular date, such as J2000.0) could be used forever, but a set of osculating elements for a particular epoch may only be (approximately) valid for a rather limited time, because osculating elements such as those exampled above do not show the effect of future perturbations which will change the values of the elements.

Nevertheless, the period of validity is a different matter in principle and not the result of the use of an epoch to express the data. In other cases, e.g. the case of a complete analytical theory of the motion of some astronomical body, all of the elements will usually be given in the form of polynomials in interval of time from the epoch, and they will also be accompanied by trigonometrical terms of periodical perturbations specified appropriately. In that case, their period of validity may stretch over several centuries or even millennia on either side of the stated epoch.

Some data and some epochs have a long period of use for other reasons. For example, the boundaries of the IAU constellations are specified relative to an equinox from near the beginning of the year 1875. This is a matter of convention, but the convention is defined in terms of the equator and ecliptic as they were in 1875. To find out in which constellation a particular comet stands today, the current position of that comet must be expressed in the coordinate system of 1875 (equinox/equator of 1875). Thus that coordinate system can still be used today, even though most comet predictions made originally for 1875 (epoch = 1875) would no longer, because of the lack of information about their time-dependence and perturbations, be useful today.

Other Languages
беларуская: Эпоха (астраномія)
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Эпоха (астраномія)
čeština: Ekvinokcium
한국어: 역기점
Bahasa Indonesia: Epos (astronomi)
Lëtzebuergesch: Epoch (Astronomie)
Bahasa Melayu: Epok (astronomi)
日本語: 元期
norsk nynorsk: Astronomisk epoke
Simple English: Epoch (astronomy)
slovenščina: Epoha (astronomija)
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Epoha (astronomija)
українська: Епоха (астрономія)
中文: 曆元