RA is measured eastward from the March equinox. Any units of angular measure can be used for RA, but it is customarily measured in hours, minutes, and seconds, with 24 hours being equivalent to a full circle. The reason for this choice is that the earth rotates at an approximately constant rate (see sidereal time). Since a complete circle has 360 degrees, an hour of right ascension is equal to 1/24 of this, or 15 degrees of arc, a single minute of right ascension equal to 15 minutes of arc, and a second of right ascension equal to 15 seconds of arc. Sidereal Hour Angle, used in celestial navigation, is similar to RA, but increases westward rather than eastward. It is important not to confuse SHA with the concept of hour angle as it is usually used in astronomy, which is how far west an object is from one's local meridian.
RA can be used to determine a star's location and to determine how long it will take for a star to reach a certain point in the sky. For example, if a star with RA = 01:30:00 is at a location's meridian, then a star with RA = 20:00:00 will be in the meridian 18.5 sidereal hours later.
Since the right ascension (and declination) of stars are constantly changing due to precession, astronomers always specify these with reference to a particular epoch. The currently used standard epoch is J2000.0, which is January 1, 2000 at 12:00 TT. The prefix "J" indicates that it is a Julian epoch. Prior to this astronomers used the successive Besselian Epochs B1875.0, B1900.0 and B1950.0.
With the invention of the telescope, it became possible for astronomers to observe celestial objects in greater detail, provided that the telescope could be kept pointed at the object for a period of time. The easiest way to do that is to use an equatorial mount for the telescope, which allows the telescope to rotate at the same rate as the earth. As the equatorial mount became widely adopted for observation, the equatorial coordinate system, which includes right ascension, was adopted at the same time for simplicity. Equatorial mounts could then be accurately pointed at objects with known right ascension and declination by the use of setting circles. The first star catalog to use right ascension and declination was John Flamsteed's Historia Coelestis Britannica (1712, 1725).