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azimuth and elevation

Azimuth and elevation are angles used to define the apparent position of an object in the sky, relative to a specific observation point. The observer is usually (but not necessarily) located on the earth's surface.

The azimuth (az) angle is the compass bearing, relative to true (geographic) north, of a point on the horizon directly beneath an observed object. The horizon is defined as a huge, imaginary circle centered on the observer, equidistant from the zenith (point straight overhead) and the nadir (point exactly opposite the zenith). As seen from above the observer, compass bearings are measured clockwise in degrees from north. Azimuth angles can thus range from 0 degrees (north) through 90 (east), 180 (south), 270 (west), and up to 360 (north again).

 

The elevation (el) angle, also called the altitude, of an observed object is determined by first finding the compass bearing on the horizon relative to true north, and then measuring the angle between that point and the object, from the reference frame of the observer. Elevation angles for objects above the horizon range from 0 (on the horizon) up to 90 degrees (at the zenith). Sometimes the range of the elevation coordinate is extended downward from the horizon to -90 degrees (the nadir). This is useful when the observer is located at some distance above the surface, such as in an aircraft.

This was last updated in November 2006

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