# Calculate lines of equal solar altitude

I'm attempting to calculate lines of equal solar altitude, essentially a generalized case of the Earth terminator for solar altitude $$h$$.

For a given sun position with declination $$\delta$$ and right ascension $$\alpha$$, I believe the positive north latitude $$\lambda$$ and positive east longitude $$\varphi$$ may be calculated using the equation

$$\sin h = \sin \delta \cdot \sin \lambda + \cos \delta \cdot \cos \lambda \cdot \cos \omega$$

where $$\omega$$ is the hour angle $$\omega = GST + \varphi - \alpha$$.

WolframAlpha gives the solution as

$$\lambda = 2 \cdot \left( { \arctan{ \left( { \sin \delta \pm \sqrt { \cos^2 \delta \cdot \cos^2 \omega + \sin^2 \delta - \sin^2 h } } \over { \cos \delta \cdot \cos \omega + \sin h } \right) } } + \pi \cdot n \right)$$

How should the correct value for $$\lambda$$ be determined from the multiple solutions? Intuitively the answer is clear when viewed on a globe (excellent visualization) but how can it be expressed mathematically?

I've generated some sample plots using $$n = 0$$, where green represents $$\sin \delta + \sqrt \ldots$$, red represents $$\sin \delta - \sqrt \ldots$$, and the yellow dot represents the sun's location.

For $$h = -0.8333 °$$ the correct solution is the curve in green:

For $$h = -18 °$$ the correct solution is the ellipse on the right with green lower half and red upper half:

Alternatively, is there a different/better method to use?

## Worked Example

Here is an example, with additions based on the answer from d_e, to illustrate the issue (or in case I've made a math error).

$$h = -0.8333 °$$ $$\delta = -14.0670 °$$

Taking $$\varphi = 45 °$$ and $$\omega = 3.3059 rad$$:

numerators:

$$\sin \delta + \sqrt { \cos^2 \delta \cdot \cos^2 \omega + \sin^2 \delta - \sin^2 h } = 0.7442$$

$$\sin \delta - \sqrt { \cos^2 \delta \cdot \cos^2 \omega + \sin^2 \delta - \sin^2 h } = -1.2303$$

denominator:

$$\cos \delta \cdot \cos \omega + \sin h = -0.9715$$

### Using atan

Latitude values using manual division and the atan function:

$$2 \cdot \arctan{ \left( 0.7442 \over -0.9715 \right) } = -74.9047 °$$ $$2 \cdot \arctan{ \left( -1.2303 \over -0.9715 \right) } = 103.4073 °$$

I believe the value $$103.4073 °$$ should be discarded because it is outside the interval $$[-90 °,90 °]$$.

### Using atan2

Latitude values using the atan2 function:

$$2 \cdot atan2{ \left( 0.7442 \over -0.9715 \right) } = 285.0953°$$ $$2 \cdot atan2{ \left( -1.2303 \over -0.9715 \right) } = -256.5927°$$

Mapping these values to $$[-90 °,90 °]$$ gives $$-74.9047 °$$ and $$76.5927 °$$.

Plugging those back into the original equation:

The coordinate $$(-74.9047,45.0000)$$ corresponds to a solar altitude of $$-0.8333 °$$

The coordinate $$(76.5927,45.0000)$$ corresponds to a solar altitude of $$-27.2789 °$$ and should be discarded.

• All are correct. The ambiguity in $n$ is only one walk around the globe - thus representing the same place. Without loss of generality you can assume n=0. What other solution do you want which is "more" mathematical than the equation for $\lambda$ you quote? Oct 24, 2021 at 19:43
• I'm looking for a way to discriminate between correct mathematical solutions and the correct physical solution. In the -18° example, the ellipse on the left (with green top and red bottom) represents the line for $h = +18°$ as best I can tell, despite being a solution of the equation for $\lambda$ using -18° for $h$. Oct 24, 2021 at 20:06
• Why not simply select a random point on each ellipse and calculate what is the Sun's altitude? it will clearly give us a definite single number of the altitude angle- then we know if this ellipse is good for us.
– d_e
Oct 25, 2021 at 8:40
• The solutions can be verified using the original equation and solving for $h$ using the calculated lat/long and checking against the desired $h$, but it seems like there should be a better way. Oct 29, 2021 at 17:50
• @d_e I added a worked example, hopefully there are no math errors. Oct 30, 2021 at 21:40

After some thought, it seems the procedure is fine, except that a diligent care is needed in the last step of Mapping to [-90, 90].

It seems a more careful way to handle this is not by plugging $$n=0$$ and them map the results to [-90, 90], but rather to select the $$n$$ value (only one can do) that would effect $$\lambda$$ in range [-90, 90] .

For instance, in the working example in the question, the solution (76.5927,45.0000) simply does not solve the original equation; this is because $$\lambda$$=−256.5927° (which indeed should solve the original equation) cannot map to any valid $$\lambda$$ in range of [-90, +90], because the $$arctan$$ is $$-128.29$$ hence possible mathematical solution would can also be $$103.4073$$ (by $$n=1$$) - but this is not in our required range. The second solution of $$+285.0953$$ can indeed be mapped into valid value if $$n=-1$$ hence this solution will work.

Now, there are cases of course where we have to get 2 valid solutions (one for the $$+$$ the other for the $$-$$). For example, when $$\delta=0$$ we must get 2 solution with opposite signs of latitude.

To conclude, if we have a valid solution between [-90, 90] after plugging some $$n$$, I can't see why it should not solve the original equation, and if a value solves the original equation, I cannot see why it should not work physically.

• @uhoh, not sure I understand what exactly is meant by $arctan$ problem. It interesting the arctan here yielded result in about $−128.29$ or $+142$ - as most calculators simply return values between $-90$ and $90$. Had the calculator returned a regular value, I think we can safety have $n=0$ - So I don't expect any special problem with using regular $arctan$ functions
– d_e
Oct 31, 2021 at 22:51
• Okay, then it doesn't, thanks! I'll repost only the 2nd part.
– uhoh
Oct 31, 2021 at 23:18
• For spherical trigonometry expressions there are usually alternate forms that avoid certain computational idiosyncrasies, and these can be generated using trigonometric identities and substitutions. I wonder if something like that might be helpful here?
– uhoh
Oct 31, 2021 at 23:19
• What you've written is helpful. I was using the atan2 function which was likely incorrect; using tan and discarding values outside the interval $[-90,90]$ seems to work. I need to perform some more calculations to be sure. Nov 1, 2021 at 15:34
• @uhoh, interesting question. I'm not an expert on that. but my hunch says what we have now is pretty neat already and working.
– d_e
Nov 1, 2021 at 19:18