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William Almonacid G.
Universidad de Ciencias Aplicadas y Ambientales, U.D.C.A
Ingenierı́a Geográfica y Ambiental

Planteamiento del Problema

En un instante particular, la posición aparente de un astro en el cielo depende de las coordenadas geográficas del
observador. Si se utilizan las medidas de la posición de un astro con el fin de localizar al observador con cierta
exactitud, es necesario usar instrumentos como el sextante y realizar correcciones a las coordenadas, por refracción,
altitud, aberración, etc. En el caso particular del Sol, las mediciones pueden ser realizadas con un buen grado de
aproximación a partir de las sombras proyectadas por este sobre un gnomon.

El objetivo de este trabajo es ubicar los puntos cardinales y encontrar las coordenadas geográficas de
un sitio de observación a partir de las sombras proyectadas por el Sol en diferentes momentos del dı́a (mañana,
mediodı́a y tarde).

El procedimiento experimental debe ser preparado y desarrollado por los estudiantes, para lo cual se recomienda
el seguimiento de las lecturas presentadas en este documento.

24.3 The Sun as a position finder

At any particular instant, the apparent position of the Sun in the sky depends on the longitude and
latitude of the observer. If positional measures of the Sun are used to determine the location with some
degree of accuracy, an observer needs to use an optical instrument such as a theodolite or sextant and
corrections such as those for refraction effects of the Earth’s atmosphere must be applied. Nowadays,
an observer’s location on the Earth can be obtained to extreme accuracy by using GPS devices. Previous
to the advent of such satellite technology, location fixes were derived from measurements by optical
It is of interest to note just how much GPS technology has improved the accuracy in respect of
the location determination. Consider a simple situation of measuring the altitude of the Sun, α
, when
it is exactly on the meridian. The determination of the latitude of the observer based on this altitude

Extraído de: Roy, A. E. & Clarke, D. Astronomy. Principles and Practice. 4th Ed.
408 Practical projects

measurement above would involve the relation

φ = 90◦ + δ
− α

Any error made in the measurement is directly translated into a location error along the line of
longitude, i.e. the determined value of φ will be displaced either N or S relative to the true position.
Suppose that optical measurements carry measurement uncertainties δθ = ±10 arc sec—this being
typical of what can be achieved using simple optical equipment. In terms of the error, δd, in distance
along the meridian, this corresponds to

2π R⊕
δd = ±10 ×
360 × 60 × 60

where R⊕ is the radius of the Earth. By substituting the appropriate value, δd ≈ 0·3 km.
By similar reasoning, an error in the knowledge of δ
or in the calculation of the refraction
correction to α
of ±1 introduces uncertainties in position of approximately ±0·03 km or ±30 m.
Currently available GPS devices provide positional determinations to accuracies more than 10
times better than this last figure, i.e. positional fixes to ±3 m are readily achieved, and it is very
obvious why location by optical instruments has been abandoned. Such weather-dependent systems
with their associated labour of subsequent numerical calculations are things of the past.
It is, however, very instructive to use old optical devices to obtain data on the Sun’s position in the
sky and on its apparent movement. In addition to providing data and gaining familiarity with various
reduction procedures, their application gives some feel as to the accuracy to which simple hand-held
optical instruments provide positional fixes of the Sun and how these are translated to a determination
of the observer’s location on the Earth.
If such exercises are now attempted, it will be noted that The Astronomical Almanac or AA has
evolved in ways more related to modern positional astronomy. Certain kinds of information are now
presented differently relative to times past when positional determinations were regularly obtained
from optical measurements. For example, the positions of the Sun (RA and δ) were formerly given
for each day at 00h UT rather than 00h TDT as they are done currently. The examples provided here
are from measurements obtained in recent times. Consequently, the presented numerical correction
procedures are related to the present forms of the data tables and are slightly different than in the
previous era.

24.3.1 Simple determination of latitude

Set up a simple sharp vertical gnomon to cast a shadow on to a horizontal plane having a surface on
which the shadow tip can be marked. At intervals of about ten minutes, over a period of about one hour
either side of the local noon, mark the position of the shadow tip. After the recordings are completed,
measure the minimum shadow length from the base of the gnomon to the shadow tip. This corresponds
to the time when the Sun is on the meridian. Knowing the height of the gnomon above the horizontal
plane allows the maximum altitude to be determined using the formula

tan α
= (see figure 24.4(a)).

Knowing also the Sun’s declination for that day, the latitude of the observer may be determined
φ = 90◦ + (δ
− α
) (see figure 24.4(b)).
The Sun as a position finder 409

Figure 24.4. The simple determination of latitude.

Volume 3, Mar 2004 - Oct 2004
Issue 1

Studying the Transit of the Sun Using Shadows

by Ping-Wai Kwok
The Hong Kong Institute of Education
Received: 04/06/04, Revised: 05/14/04, Posted: 05/26/04

The Astronomy Education Review, Issue 1, Volume 3:106-114, 2004

© 2004, Ping-Wai Kwok. Copyright assigned to the Association of Universities for Research in
Astronomy, Inc.

This article describes how to accurately determine the time of the Sun’s transit and the north-south
direction by observing a stick’s shadows. The same observations can be used to determine the latitude and
longitude of the location of the observation. Calculating the latitude and longitude is particularly simple
for certain dates.

The shadows of a stick can tell us a lot about the motions of the Earth and Sun. Jackson (2004) discussed
the use of shadows to study the transit of the Sun, the north-south direction, and the seasonal changes of
the shadows. In this article, I discuss alternative ways of observing the transit of the Sun and other
activities using shadows. The discussions and diagrams are for the northern hemisphere, but with
appropriate conversions, these activities are also applicable in the southern hemisphere.


When the Sun is at transit at noon, shadows have their shortest lengths for that day. The direction of
shadows at transit is north-south, but it is difficult to judge when this happens because the Sun is not
necessarily at transit at clock noon. Jackson’s method relies on finding the time of transit by reading
sunrise and sunset times in the local newspaper, but this information is not always available. Although
several Web sites provide online calculations of the sunrise and sunset times, including the U.S. Naval
Observatory ( and Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac
Office (, they are not needed to determine when the Sun is at transit. The
procedures for determining the time of transit are outlined below.
Lay out a large sheet of paper on the ground or on a drawing board on the ground. Erect a stick with a
pointed end upward. The stick should be vertical. A simple way to hold the stick upright is to use Blu-tack
or plasticine. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Set-up for observing the shadows of a stick.

The size of the paper depends on the duration of the shadow observation. If you start very early in the
morning and finish very late in the afternoon, you probably need a large sheet of paper. The size of the
paper needed also depends on the height of the stick. For example, if you use a 25-cm bamboo skewer
(available in supermarkets for BBQs) as the stick, the typical paper size is about 75 cm by 60 cm, or two
A-3 size sheets of paper joined together. Preferably, the observation should start at least two hours before
noon. Have the watch calibrated with the local standard time, mark the position of the tip of the stick’s
shadow on the paper, and note the time. Take a measurement about every 15 to 30 minutes. When the Sun
is near transit, take measurements more frequently. You can stop taking measurements about two hours
after transit. Another way to judge when to stop is to see whether there are enough measurements to make
the track of the shadows look symmetrical at about the transit time. With the position of the paper still
fixed, remove the stick. Connect all of the marked positions of the shadow with a smooth line (dotted lines
in Figure 2). Draw a circle with the stick location in the center. The radius is arbitrary as long as the circle
intersects the curve of the shadow at two points--A1 and B1 in January, A3 and B3 during equinoxes, and
A6 and B6 in June--on either side of the transit for places north of the Tropic of Cancer (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Tracks of the shadows (dotted lines) in January, equinoxes, and June (from top to bottom) for
places north of the Tropic of Cancer.

The line joining the intersecting points is in an east-west direction. You can then draw a perpendicular line
through the center of the circle. This is the north-south line. With this method, you do not have to know
the local transit time of the Sun. The time when the transit occurs can be determined using interpolation. If
you mark the positions of the shadows frequently enough near transit, the time of the transit can be
determined quite accurately.

The accuracy of the east-west direction, hence the north-south direction, can be increased if the
intersections of the circle and the shadow of the track are farther apart. A larger scale helps because there
are always errors in marking the shadow positions, drawing the track of the shadows, drawing the circle,
and judging the intersecting points. Let the overall uncertainty in locating the intersecting points be y. The
uncertainty of the east-west direction is about arctan(y/x), where x is the separation of the intersecting
points. Because y is more or less the same, increasing x reduces the uncertainty of the direction. (See
Figure 3.)
Figure 3. Increase the accuracy of the east-west direction by maximizing the separation, x, of the
intersecting points. The errors, y, are greatly exaggerated in the diagram.

If the measurement starts early in the morning and ends late in the afternoon, you can draw a bigger circle
to intersect the track of the shadows and hence improve the accuracy. Once the north-south direction is
determined, the length of the shadow at transit can be measured at leisure and with better accuracy than if
it is done while the observations are in progress.

The observation of the shadows usually requires a wide open area on a sunny day so that the stick can cast
shadows throughout the day. However, it may happen that it is sunny when you start the observation in the
morning, and becomes cloudy in the afternoon, or the opposite. You have about half of the symmetric
curve of the shadow track, and the circle intersects the curve at only one point. As long as the curve
includes the transit segment, you can still make use of your observational data even though the curve is
asymmetric and incomplete. Because the curve must be symmetrical and the line must join smoothly with
its mirror image, we can use a mirror to find the north-south direction. If the mirror is not along the
north-south direction, the observed curve and its mirror image will have either an outward pointing cusp
(Figure 4a) or an inward pointing cusp (Figure 4b).
Figure 4(a). Mirror points to the northwest direction. Figure 4(b). Mirror points to the northeast direction.

This method is not very sensitive when the mirror is near the north-south direction; the uncertainty could
be up to 1 to 2 degrees. However, this procedure is still better than using a magnetic compass alone. The
magnetic declination for most of the Earth is much larger than this uncertainty (NOAA National
Geophysical Data Center, 2004). The method of using the mirror image is also applicable to circumstances
in which continuous sunshine from morning until afternoon is not possible. In Hong Kong, many schools
are surrounded by high-rise buildings or next to a hill slope. Sunlight reaches the schools for only about
half the day. This method allows schools to run the activity in any schoolyard without the logistical
problems such as transportation and personal safety. For safety reasons, it is advisable to use plastic or
acrylic mirrors instead of glass mirrors for this activity. Plastic mirrors are available in hardware stores or
mirror stores, or they can be ordered online. Unlike glass mirrors, plastic mirrors are easier to work with
and can be cut to any size that suits your activity, without special tools or techniques.

The stick shadows can also be used to find the latitude and longitude of the location where the stick
stands. To find the latitude, in general we need to know the altitude of the Sun at transit (angle A) and the
declination of the Sun (angle D). The latitude (angle B) is given by
Latitude = 90 degrees - (angle A + angle D)

The declination of the Sun can be found from the Astronomical Almanac (United States Naval
Observatory Nautical Almanac Office, published yearly) or from the Web version of MICA (United States
Naval Observatory, 2003). The measurement is particularly simple if it is taken in equinoxes because the
declination of the Sun is zero on these days. (See Figure 5.)

Figure 5(a). Sunlight direction and latitude.

Figure 5(b). Sunlight in the spring and autumn equinoxes.

From the time of transit of the Sun, we can find the longitude of the stick. The local time--as measured by
the position of the Sun--at one longitude is different from the local time at another longitude. Life would
be very confusing if we operated on local time. My watch would have a different time from your watch if
we were at different longitudes, even in the same city. The use of time zones avoids this confusion.
Standard longitudes are chosen to be at 0 degrees, 15 degrees east/west, 30 degrees east/west, and so on.
Places within + or - 7.5 degrees of the standard longitudes all use the same time, which is called mean
solar time and is the same as the local time at the standard longitudes. (This simple rule is sometimes
modified to take account of geographic and political boundaries.) Of course, at places east of the standard
longitude of the time zone, the Sun occurs earlier (e.g., 11:45 a.m.) than at places west of the standard
longitude of the time zone (e.g., 12:20 p.m.). Because four minutes difference in time translates to 1
degree in longitude, the difference in time between the transit of the Sun at any specific place and the
standard longitude for the same time zone can be used to find the longitude of the place where the transit
was observed.

Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated than what I just wrote. The Sun does not move uniformly
in the sky. Even if we are at the standard longitude, the Sun transit time does not always happen exactly at
12 noon. It may happen a bit earlier or a bit later depending on the seasons. The difference between the
actual transit time (local apparent solar time, LAST) and the mean transit time (local mean solar time,
LMST) is called equation of time and can be up to 16 minutes.

Equation of time = LAST - LMST

The equation of time can be found from the "figure 8," also called analemma, usually printed on the
surface of a globe. It is also tabulated in some Web sites (e.g., or calculated according to
the procedures in the Astronomical Almanac. The time recorded by the shadow is the LAST; correction is
then applied to obtain the LMST. Once the LMST is found, it is straightforward to convert the time
difference to longitude.

When the correction happens to be zero, the calculation is very simple. There are four times each year that
the corrections are zero. These four dates are April 16, June 15, September 2, and December 25. If local
solar transit is measured within 1 to 2 days on these four dates, the local apparent solar noon is just the
local mean solar noon. For example, if the LMST at transit is 11:45 a.m., the longitude of the stick is

Longitude = longitude at standard meridian + (12:00 - 11:45)/4 for the eastern hemisphere.

Longitude = longitude at standard meridian - (12:00 - 11:45)/4 for the western hemisphere.

If the LMST at transit is 12:20 p.m., the longitude of the stick is

Longitude = longitude at standard meridian - (12:20 - 12:00)/4 for the eastern hemisphere.

Longitude = longitude at standard meridian + (12:20 - 12:00)/4 for the western hemisphere.

Students find it amazing that without a GPS, they can locate their latitude and longitude with simple tools
and calculations. This is a skill that one would find very useful if one were stranded in a remote place on


I want to thank the referee, Eric Jackson, for his constructive comments to improve the manuscript.

Jackson, E. 2004, Daytime Astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere Using Shadows, Astronomy Education
Review, 2(2), 146.

United States Naval Observatory. 2003, Web version of MICA,
United States Naval Observatory. 2003, Astronomical Almanac, Nautical Almanac Office. Washington
DC : U.S. G.P.O. Published yearly.

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