Here’s a natural phenomenon you might never have imagined. That is, the sun actually sets faster around the time of an equinox. The fastest sunsets (and sunrises) occur at or near the equinoxes. What’s more, the slowest sunsets (and sunrises) occur at or near the solstices. This is true whether you live in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. And, by the way, when we say sunset here, we’re talking about the actual number of minutes it takes for the body of the sun to sink below the western horizon. To learn more about the fast sunsets around now, and what to look for in the sky after sunset, follow the links below.
Why does the sun set so quickly around the equinoxes? At every equinox, the sun rises and sets due west. That means – on the day of an equinox – the sun hits the horizon at its steepest possible angle. In other words, the sun is dropping almost straight down from above. Meanwhile, at a solstice, the sun is setting farthest north or farthest south of due west. The farther the sun sets from due west along the horizon, the shallower the angle of the setting sun. That means a longer duration for sunset at the solstices.
Although the sunset duration varies by latitude, the equinox sun sets in about 2 and 3/4 minutes at 40o latitude (Denver, Philadelphia).
Meanwhile, at 40o latitude, the solstice sun sets in roughly 3 and 1/3 minutes.
What can I see in the sky after sunset? After the quick sunset today – or any evening around now – be sure to look in the southwest for the celestial lineup adorning the southwest sky at nightfall and early evening. The planet Mars shines between the star Antares and the planet Saturn. Mars will meet up with Antares near the end of this month.
When is the next equinox? In 2014, the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn equinox (Southern Hemisphere’s spring equinox) falls on September 23 at 2:29 Universal Time. In North America, that translates to September 22, at 10:29 p.m. Eastern Time, 9:29 p.m. Central Time, 8:29 p.m. Mountain Time and 7:29 p.m. Pacific Time.
Bottom line: The fastest sunsets of the year are happening now, around the time of the September equinox. At evening dusk in September 2014, a string of celestial gems crosses the southwest sky, with the planet Mars shining between the bright star Antares and the ringed planet Saturn.