equatorial coordinate system, the most commonly used astronomical coordinate system for indicating the positions of stars or other celestial objects on the celestial sphere. The celestial sphere is an imaginary sphere with the observer at its center. It represents the entire sky; all celestial objects other than the earth are imagined as being located on its inside surface. If the earth's axis is extended, the points where it intersects the celestial sphere are called the celestial poles; the north celestial pole is directly above the earth's North Pole, and the south celestial pole directly above the earth's South Pole. The great circle on the celestial sphere halfway between the celestial poles is called the celestial equator; it can be thought of as the earth's equator projected onto the celestial sphere. It divides the celestial sphere into the northern and southern skies. An important reference point on the celestial equator is the vernal equinox, the point at which the sun crosses the celestial equator in March.
To designate the position of a star, the astronomer considers an imaginary great circle passing through the celestial poles and through the star in question. This is the star's hour circle, analogous to a meridian of longitude on earth. The astronomer then measures the angle between the vernal equinox and the point where the hour circle intersects the celestial equator. This angle is called the star's right ascension and is measured in hours, minutes, and seconds rather than in the more familiar degrees, minutes, and seconds. (There are 360 degrees or 24 hours in a full circle.) The right ascension is always measured eastward from the vernal equinox. Next the observer measures along the star's hour circle the angle between the celestial equator and the position of the star. This angle is called the declination of the star and is measured in degrees, minutes, and seconds north or south of the celestial equator, analogous to latitude on the earth. Right ascension and declination together determine the location of a star on the celestial sphere. The right ascensions and declinations of many stars are listed in various reference tables published for astronomers and navigators. Because a star's position may change slightly (see proper motion and precession of the equinoxes), such tables must be revised at regular intervals. By definition, the vernal equinox is located at right ascension 0h and declination 0°.
Another useful reference point is the sigma point, the point where the observer's celestial meridian intersects the celestial equator. The right ascension of the sigma point is equal to the observer's local sidereal time. The angular distance from the sigma point to a star's hour circle is called its hour angle; it is equal to the star's right ascension minus the local sidereal time. Because the vernal equinox is not always visible in the night sky (especially in the spring), whereas the sigma point is always visible, the hour angle is used in actually locating a body in the sky.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.