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I wrote a program based on this tutorial: http://www.stjarnhimlen.se/comp/ppcomp.html to calculate altitude and azimuth of a celestial object. When I compare the calculated RA/Dec values to the ones from Stellarium, they are very accurate. But when I compare the Alt/Az values to the ones from Stellarium, there is an error of about 2 degrees! I use the following method to calculate Alt, Az:

GMST0 = Ls + 180_degrees # Ls = Sun's longitude
GMST = GMST0 + UT
LST  = GMST + local_longitude
HA = LST - RA

x = cos(HA) * cos(Decl)
y = sin(HA) * cos(Decl)
z = sin(Decl)

xhor = x * sin(lat) - z * cos(lat)
yhor = y
zhor = x * cos(lat) + z * sin(lat)

az  = atan2( yhor, xhor ) + 180_degrees
alt = asin( zhor ) = atan2( zhor, sqrt(xhor*xhor+yhor*yhor) )

Some specific example:

Test date 15.09.2018, time 15:00 UT Planet: Mercury

Coordinates: +47.55777777° +8.89888888

What stellarium says:

RA = 11h 18m 13.26s

Dec = +6°25'08.5"

Az = +250°21'13.2"

Alt = +25°25'00.1"

What my program says:

RA = 11h 18m 14s

Dec = 6° 25' 6.59"

Az = +248° 49' 6.9"

Alt = +26° 33' 16.43"

Thanks in advance!

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    $\begingroup$ Could you give us some specific examples? Is the 2 degree consistent with different latitudes/longitudes/ra/dec, or does it vary based on the input parameters? My vague first suspicion is that, because the Earth is an ellipsoid and not a sphere, your zenith direction ("surface normal") isn't exactly opposite the direction to the center of the Earth. $\endgroup$
    – user21
    Sep 15, 2018 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ The 2 degree error is not consistent, it's just the maximum error, but a lot of calculations (especially azimuth) were off by about 2°. I'll edit the question with some specific examples. $\endgroup$
    – Michael S
    Sep 15, 2018 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ Stellarium usually gives both precessed and unprecessed coordinates. Are you using J2000 or current precession. The difference is small, but might be enough to explain the error. I may look into this deeper, but this was just a thought I had. $\endgroup$
    – user21
    Sep 15, 2018 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ It says "Precession is computed in a simplified way, by a simple addition to the ecliptic longitude" on the website. $\endgroup$
    – Michael S
    Sep 19, 2018 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ An interesting thing is that the azimuth always is about 1.5° under the expected value, except for the moon. $\endgroup$
    – Michael S
    Sep 19, 2018 at 18:08

2 Answers 2

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I have the answer to your question, in case you have not already worked it out! You have used the wrong value for the Longitude of the Sun in your calculation of GMST0. You used the Ecliptic Longitude, lonsun = v + w (using the symbols on the tutorial website you mentioned) but you need the Sun's mean longitude, Ls = M + w

It so happens that I had already written a program based on the tutorial you mentioned: http://www.stjarnhimlen.se/comp/ppcomp.html and have used it to check the results for your example. Using 'lonson' gives values very close to what you got:

Altitude = +26deg 33min 16sec, Azimuth = 16hrs 35min 16sec = 248deg 49.0min

but using the correct 'Ls' gives the following results:

Altitude = +25deg 24min 57sec, Azimuth = 16hrs 41min 24sec = 250deg 21.0min

which are very close to the Stellarium values.

Finally I must say that, in spite of the comments in previous answers, I would highly recommend that tutorial website, and get pretty accurate results using all of its calculation methods.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow, I did not expect someone to bother finding the solution to my problem over 5 years later, thank you! $\endgroup$
    – Michael S
    Feb 2 at 18:58
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The algorithm on that page is very simplistic and is probably the source of a good portion of that error. It's best to test your code using a very accurate ephemeris, even if your final goal is to have a much more simple ephemeris implementation. DE405, or VSOP87 would be good alternatives.

A small error in GMST can have a big effect on Alt/Az computations, I would expect that the simplicity of the algorithm on the page produces a good sized error in GMST.

Another common source of error is differences in time scales. You need to make sure you propperly account for things like leap seconds, which that page specifically says it ignores. You need to convert UTC to Terrestrial Time by subtracting 37.0 + 32.184 (where 37 is the current number of leap seconds).

Also make sure you're not comparing different coordinate systems. Like J2000 vs "Of Date", or coordinates adjusted for atmospheric refraction.

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