Twilight is the time between dawn and sunrise or between sunset and dusk, during which sunlight scattering in the upper atmosphere illuminates the lower atmosphere, and the surface of the earth is neither completely lit nor completely dark. The sun itself is not directly visible because it is below the horizon. Owing to the distinctive quality of the ambient light at this time, twilight has long been popular with photographers and painters, who refer to it as the "blue hour", after the French expression l'heure bleue.
Twilight is defined according to the solar elevation angle θs, which is the position of the geometric center of the sun relative to the horizon. There are three established and widely accepted subcategories of twilight, from lightest to darkest: civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight.
Morning civil twilight begins when the geometric center of the sun is 6° below the horizon (civil dawn) and ends at sunrise. Evening civil twilight begins at sunset and ends when the geometric center of the sun reaches 6° below the horizon (civil dusk).
The brightest stars appear during the civil twilight, as well as planets, such as Venus, which is known as the "morning star" or "evening star". During this period there is enough light from the sun that artificial sources of light may not be needed to carry on outdoor activities. This concept is sometimes enshrined in laws, for example, when drivers of automobiles must turn on their headlights (called lighting-up time in the UK); when pilots may exercise the rights to fly aircraft; restrictions on hunting; or if the crime of burglary is to be treated as nighttime burglary, which carries stiffer penalties in some jurisdictions. A fixed period (most commonly 30 minutes after sunset or before sunrise) is typically used in such statutes, rather than how many degrees the sun is below the horizon. Civil twilight can also be described as the limit at which twilight illumination is sufficient, under clear weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished; at the beginning of morning civil twilight, or end of evening civil twilight, the horizon is clearly defined and the brightest stars are visible under clear atmospheric conditions.
Nautical twilight is the time when the center of the sun is between 6° and 12° below the horizon. In general, nautical twilight ends when navigation via the horizon at sea is no longer possible.
During nautical twilight, sailors can take reliable star sightings of well-known stars, using a visible horizon for reference. The end of this period in the evening, or its beginning in the morning, is also the time at which traces of illumination near the sunset or sunrise point of the horizon are very difficult, if not impossible, to discern (this often being referred to as "first light" before civil dawn and "nightfall" after civil dusk). At the beginning of nautical twilight in the morning (nautical dawn), or at the end of nautical twilight in the evening (nautical dusk)—under good atmospheric conditions and in the absence of other illumination—general outlines of ground objects may be distinguishable, but detailed outdoor operations are not possible, and the horizon is indistinct.
Nautical twilight has military considerations as well. The initialisms BMNT (begin morning nautical twilight, i.e. nautical dawn) and EENT (end evening nautical twilight, i.e. nautical dusk) are used and considered when planning military operations. A military unit may treat BMNT and EENT with heightened security, e.g. by "standing to", in which everyone assumes a defensive position. This is partially due to tactics dating back to the French and Indian War (part of the Seven Years' War of 1756–1763), when combatants on both sides would launch attacks at nautical dawn or dusk.
Astronomical twilight is the time when the center of the sun is between 12° and 18° below the horizon. From the end of astronomical twilight in the evening to the beginning of astronomical twilight in the morning, the sky (away from urban light pollution) is dark enough for all astronomical observations.
Most casual observers would consider the entire sky fully dark even when astronomical twilight is just beginning in the evening or just ending in the morning, and astronomers can easily make observations of point sources such as stars, but faint diffuse items such as nebulae and galaxies can be properly observed only beyond the limit of astronomical twilight. In some places, especially those with sky glow, astronomical twilight may be almost indistinguishable from night. Theoretically, the dimmest stars ever visible to the naked eye—those of the sixth magnitude—will become visible in the evening once the sun falls more than 18° below the horizon (i.e., at astronomical dusk) and become invisible when the sun moves to within 18° of the horizon in the morning (at astronomical dawn). However, because of light pollution, some localities—generally those in large cities—may never have the opportunity to view even fourth-magnitude stars, irrespective of the presence of any twilight at all.
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- "Definitions from the US Astronomical Applications Dept (USNO)". Retrieved 2011-07-22.
- Van Flandern, T.; K. Pulkkinen (1980). "Low precision formulae for planetary positions". Astrophysical Journal, Supplement Series 31 (3). Bibcode:1979ApJS...41..391V. doi:10.1086/190623.
- "Rise, Set, and Twilight Definitions". US Naval Observatory. United States Navy.