Episode 15: Galactic Alignments, Part 1
Recap: I discuss five ideas propagated by 2012ers about the Sun, Earth, and Galaxy all coming into alignment in some way to do something in 2012. Find out what's really going on ... if anything.
Puzzler: There is a widely propagated myth that you will find in many media outlets every March 21 that states the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere is the only day out of the year that you can balance an egg on its end. Let's assume the myth is actually that you can do it on either equinox. Can you come up with an actual force that would in any way help you to balance an egg on its end on an equinox?
Q&A: Jeff S. asks: "If a Gamma Ray Burst was headed towards us but it was coming from the opposite side of the Sun would we still feel the effects or would the sun shield us?"
The short answer is yes, but only if your gamma ray burst (or "GRB") were incredibly narrowly focused, very short, and aimed exactly at the Earth with the sun exactly in the way. The inner parts of the sun are dense enough to block gamma rays from getting to Earth. The problem is that that angular alignment is almost impossible to achieve, and the width of GRB beams while thought to be small is not THAT small.
So yeah, theoretically, we'd be okay, but practically speaking, your scenario would be next to impossible to occur.
- Audio Clips are from:
- Galaxies in the Universe: An Introduction by Linda S. Sparke & John S. Gallagher. ©2000.
- Relevant Posts on my "Exposing PseudoAstronomy" Blog
New News Segment from Other Episodes:
- From Episode 35: Sun's motion through the galaxy.
- Science abstract for "The Heliosphere's Interstellar Interaction: No Bow Shock" by McComas et al.
- My blog post about the subject
- Time article about the subject
Claim: The basic claim is that at the end of the Mayan calendar - which as discussed last time in Episode 14 doesn't actually end - there will be some sort of alignment of something near us with something in the galaxy. And when that happens, something unusual will be the result that will affect us in some way. I know that sounds incredibly vague, but that's because there are so many different alignment ideas out there that that description is the one that really encompasses them all. These ideas vary among:
Earth will align with ...
or the Sun will align with ...
or all the planets will align with...
... Planet X,
... the center of the galaxy,
... the black hole in the center of the galaxy,
... the plane of the galaxy,
... or the dark rift of the galaxy.
And when this happens ...
... a beam of energy will shoot out and ...
... hurt us,
... or elevate us to a new enlightenment,
... or cause a pole shift or flip.
... or something else but the Mayans wouldn't tell us.
What I'll Be Addressing
From this, we can first off conclude that if the Mayans were predicting something, they sure weren't very clear about it. Despite the claims among 2012ers that Mayan prophecies were very specific. No one agrees on anything.
I should also make it clear that I am an astro/geophysicist, not a metaphysicst. So I'm not going to address raises in consciousness or beams of energy or great serpents in the sky dropping ropes down to us that will transport us like stargates. And no, I did not make up those last two, there are people who believe that is what's going to happen in 2012.
Instead, in this episode, I'm going to talk about:
Two kinds of actual physical alignments,
The first being that the sun will get to the center of the galaxy and get zapped by the black hole, and
the second one that the sun will enter the galactic plane and lots of junk from there will rain down on us.
I'm also going to talk about three kinds of apparent alignments,
the first being that Earth will align with the center of the galaxy,
the second that the sun will align with the center of the galaxy,
and the third will wait somewhat until the next episode, that the sun will align with the center of the galaxy on exactly the winter solstice in 2012 either blocking energy or sending energy or opening up some gateway or some such other thing. That will be talked about in Part 2, What the Sky Looks Like on December 21, 2012, when I'll also discuss what would happen with an alignment with the center of our galaxy.
The final disclaimer of this episode is that it's meant to be an introduction to a very broad range of claims. Over the next 12 months 6 days, I'm going to also discuss some specific peoples' entire picture with regards to 2012, and some of that includes galactic alignments. Brent Miller of the Horizon Project is an example, as he thinks that the sun's physical entry into the galactic plane will cause a bunch of stuff's gravitational pull to cause a pole flip. I'll be talking about pole flips in February. So when I talk about Miller, I'll be refreshing your memory about what this episode discussed, too.
But first, to get started with the topic of alignments, I first have to discuss what an alignment actually is. This may seem like a really basic concept, but it's one that an understanding of already eliminates one of the claims I said I'd talk about.
The first kind of alignment is a physical alignment where you have two things pointing at each other. Two chopsticks in their little paper package are physically aligned. To get this kind of alignment, you need objects that have an obvious longer dimension to them like a pencil ... NOT like a planet.
The other kind of alignment is an apparent alignment. This is when two objects appear to come together from a third object's vantage point. For example, if you close one eye, hold your finger in front of your face and DON'T do this if you're driving, and you move your finger just right so it blocks a distant light, then your finger and that light have just made an apparent alignment from the vantage point of your open eye.
Eliminating Earth Aligning with the Center of the Galaxy
Which is why we can eliminate the apparent alignment of Earth with the center of our galaxy. In that claim, you have two objects but no vantage point. You have to have the vantage point to get an alignment. This claim simply makes no sense. From somewhere in space, Earth is aligned with the center of the galaxy at every moment of every day.
Eliminating the Physical Alignments
The next task is to make somewhat longer work of the physical alignment claims of where the sun will be. To do that, I need to give you a crash course through the sun's orbit.
We are on Earth. Earth orbits the sun (a star). The sun orbits the Milky Way, our galaxy. Just as Earth orbits within the solar system but still orbits the solar system's center of mass, the sun orbits the Milky Way's center of mass but is still inside the Milky Way (that's a complicated way of saying that we are neither at the center of our galaxy nor at the edge).
[Clip from Monty Python's "The Galaxy Song"]
The numbers are reasonably accurate, though our orbital period is closer to 250 million years to make one complete ellipse around the center. Notice that I said "ellipse" for the orbit. This is technically correct, but to very good approximation, the stars out by us are mostly on nearly circular orbits.
But besides just orbiting in a single plane (as in like a flat piece of paper), stars also oscillate through the general gravitational plane of the galaxy. They generally stay within the "thin disk" that contains 95% of the stars, but this thin disk is on the order of about 1000 light-years thick (though, compared with the diameter of the galaxy being 100,000 light-years, this is still pretty thin). Our sun is one of those stars that does oscillate through the gravitational central plane of our galaxy.
Today, yesterday, and tomorrow, the sun does not lie in the galactic midplane, but it is about 35-70 light-years "above" it (since there's no "up" in space, you could also say it lies below it). It is also currently still traveling "upwards" in the direction of the North Galactic Pole at a rate of 7-8 km/sec. I'll repeat that: The Sun is 10s of lightyears AWAY from the midplane of the galaxy and it is getting FARTHER AWAY every second.
It's also not on a perfectly circular orbit relative to the plane of the galaxy, moving presently inward at a rate of 10-11 km/sec. Its rotational velocity around the center of the galaxy is about 200 km/sec.
I should also note that the center of our galaxy, the supergiant black hole known as Sag A* (pronounced "Sag A-star" or "Sagittarius A-star"), is the celestial coordinates 17 h 45m 40s RA, -29° 00′ 28.00″ DEC. What those actually mean is unimportant at the moment, just keep it in mind.
The point in all this astrometry (astro = star, metry = measurement) and all these numbers is that that's the state of the science. Those numbers were taken from a graduate-level text by Sparke & Galliger and it's based on very careful measurement of the motions and positions of many, many stars. If you want to argue with it, you'd better come prepared.
What that means is that if we go back to the ideas of physical alignments - that the sun will get to the center of the galaxy or the sun will enter the galactic plane - they're wrong. They're simply plainly utterly wrong. I will say it's literally impossible.
That is, unless you want to invent some way for the solar system to travel several thousand times faster than light to get there in the next year.
The Sun Will Align with the Center of the Galaxy
At this point, we're left with really only one alignment claim and one variant of it: The sun will align with the center of the galaxy, or it'll do so specifically on December 21, 2012 and this means something special will happen. So that the next podcast episode on what the sky looks like on December 21, 2012, is longer than the opening and closing music, I'm going to hold off on addressing the specific claim of December 21 until that episode.
There are really two main premises of what will happen in or around 2012 in regards to the plane of the Milky Way. The first was popularized by John Major Jenkins back in 1998, and it deals with an apparent alignment, as viewed from Earth. To quote him:
Amazingly, the center of this cosmic cross, that is, right where the ecliptic crosses over the Milky Way, is exactly where the December solstice sun will be in A.D 2012. This alignment occurs only once every 25,800 years. [page XXXIX]
The bottom line of my theory is that the ancient Maya chose the 2012 end-date because this is the date on which occurs a rare alignment of the solstice sun with the Galactic Center. [page XLI]
The Long Count calendar is a galactic calendar because it pinpoints a rare alignment with our Milky Way Galaxy, due to occur in A.D. 2012 – a date written as 188.8.131.52.0 in the Long Count. [page 105]
Jenkins actually gets his dates wrong, but that's something I'll talk about next episode. The first thing to address here are his claims about the Mayan calendar, which I gave an intro to in the last episode.
First, there is no end date to the Mayan calendar, and even if there were, we don't know if it actually does line up with our calendar year of 2012.
Second, the Long Count calendar, or the abbreviated version of it that we're familiar with, lasts about 5125 years. You'll notice that this is not 25,800. It's also not an even divisor of 25,800. So this claim of his and others that the Mayan calendar is a cycle that aligns with Earth's precessional cycle - which is what they're claiming - is wrong.
Galactic Alignments Happen Every Year! Twice!
I talked somewhat about precession in my astrology extravaganza episode. Precession is the phenomenon where the location in space that Earth's axis points to slowly moves around in a circle. It takes about 26,000 years to do so, and the effect is that the north and south pole stars change and where the sun rises relative to the stars on a given date during the year rises, so the sun doesn't line up with the astrological constellations anymore.
So, if the sun rose in the constellation Taurus 3000 years ago on May 1, then today it may rise in the next constellation over. It'll be in Taurus the next month, though.
What this also means is that if the sun at a particular time of year happens to appear in our sky to be lined up with our galaxy, then it will be lined up EVERY SINGLE YEAR, the date may just shift a little.
Those of you who are psychic or maybe just active listeners probably can tell where I'm going with this, but I'll belabor it a bit longer. The galaxy that we're a part of is a spiral but we're kinda on the "inside" of it - yes, even though we're around 50 light-years above it. Because we're inside it, that means we see it all around us as a band through the sky. It goes all around, just like if you stick your finger through a pice of paper, your finger is touching the paper in a band around your finger. If your finger had eyes all around it, it would see the band of the paper.
The center of the galaxy is something we see nicely in the late summer during the evening, and it's what we're most familiar with because it's a thicker band through the sky. But in the opposite direction, if you're in a dark sky site, you will still be able to see the band of the Milky Way.
The galaxy is tilted relative to the plane of our solar system, too. That's why it's at an angle through our sky. It's also why some people believe the sun is not part of our galaxy ... but that's a different episode.
What this means is that through the course of the year ... figure it out yet? That's right, the sun's path through our sky goes through the galaxy TWICE EVERY YEAR, SIX MONTHS APART.
I'll say it again because it's an important point: TWICE, EVERY YEAR, the sun appears to be aligned with the plane of our galaxy.
That means by this point that there absolutely positively is nothing special about an alignment with our galactic plane. If there were, it would happen every year. Twice.
Because of precession, exactly when during the year this happens does change over thousands of years. THOUSANDS of years.
It just so happens that for the last ~300 years through the next ~300 years, the time of year it conjuncts with the plane towards the inside versus the outside of the galaxy happens to be in mid-to-late December. More on that in the next episode.
The Center Versus the Disk
At this point, I've been drawing out in excruciating detail an analysis of the idea that in 2012 there is a very alignment of our sun with the Milky Way. So far, I've explained that this is not true, it aligns twice with the plane of the galaxy every year. In that sense, this claim is now done with and I could end the episode.
But, there's a specific variation that I also want to talk about. Most people don't say that the sun aligns with the PLANE or EQUATOR of the Galaxy, but they say it aligns with the center.
Astronomers divide the sky up into latitude and longitude just like mapmakers do on Earth. If you project Earth's equator out into the sky, that's 0° latitude on the sky. Astronomers have to be complicated and call it "declination." As I've talked about on previous episodes, Earth's axis is tilted 23.5° relative to its path around the sun. That means that at any given time during the year, the Sun MUST be between +23.5° DEC and -23.5° DEC. By definition and by orbital mechanics. It doesn't matter where else in the sky it is in terms of longitude ... in terms of latitude it MUST and CAN ONLY BE between ±23.5°. As far as I can tell, this is not directly disputed by 2012ers.
But, that brings us back to something I mentioned earlier. I talked about the center of our galaxy which has a supermassive black hole and is designated Sag A*. I also talked about its position and told you it wasn't important to remember the numbers. That's 'cause I'm going to repeat them now. The center of our galaxy in our sky is at -29° 00′ 28.00″ DEC. For those of you who remember basic math, -29° is not between ±23.5°. That means IT IS NOT POSSIBLE for the sun to align with the CENTER of our galaxy. Not in 2012, not EVER.
If you want to claim otherwise, you need to explain why basic observational fact is wrong.
That's what it really reduces to for all these galactic alignment claims in the end:
For the two physical alignment claims, they were both about the sun either getting to the center of our galaxy or the sun being IN the plane of the galaxy, physically crossing it. That's wrong based on all available astrometry and to change it you'd need to move our solar system several times faster than light for this to happen in 2012. We also know we're not anywhere near the actual center of the galaxy because if we were, the band of the Milky Way would be bright and even across the entire sky, which it's not.
The first apparent alignment was about Earth aligning with the galaxy. That's wrong because you don't have a specified vantage point, and you can make up any point that at any given moment of any given day would see Earth aligned with the center of the galaxy. As far as I know, the International Space Station hasn't suffered whenever Earth has aligned with it from their vantage point.
The second apparent alignment was the Sun with the central plane or actual center as viewed from Earth. But the Sun can NEVER appear to align with the center of the galaxy because of the way Earth orbits it. But it DOES align with the plane of the galaxy ... twice every year.
The third apparent alignment claim I'll discuss in more detail next week, and that's that the second one will happen specifically on December 21, 2012, and what some people say will happen astronomically when that occurs.
That brings us to the end of the discussion about galactic alignments, at least for this episode. The next episode is going to be fairly short because it is a small extension of this one.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the concept of these alignments - both physical, so the sun being in the plane of the galaxy - and apparent, the sun looking like it lines up with something - will come up throughout my discussion of 2012 ideas over the next twelve months and six days. I will be referring back to this episode quite a bit, but I'll also rehash the basic ideas when necessary.
Provide Your Comments:
Comments to date: 4. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:
Stuart Boulder, CO, USA
1:10pm on Monday, February 27th, 2012
John - yes, I think you are correct that the galactic center / plane will move ever-so-slightly over the course of the year -- this is called "parallax." The closest star other than the sun has a parallax of 0.76 arcsec. The Hipparcos satellite, launched in 1989, measured parallax out to around 500 pc somewhat accurately (±10% on stars within 100 pc). That's only around 2-3% the distance to the galactic center. So any change is WAY beyond measurement ability.
John Freestone Yorkshire, UK
12:23pm on Wednesday, February 15th, 2012
Thanks Stuart. The problem in my mind was, specifically, why the GC doesn't change its declination over a year, so strictly speaking, I would say it has to be a 4D geometry question, even without numbers: 3 of space and 1 of time. I was confused about this due to the fact that the sun obviously does change declination during both the day and year, and my intuition said that something like the GC ought to change dec.
Stuart Boulder, CO, USA
5:22pm on Saturday, February 11th, 2012
John - I'll use this as a Q&A in a future episode. I'll try to explain the geometry better. Until then, think of a plate and think of a small ring. Hold the ring up to the edge of the plate, so the ring is horizontal (the ring and plate would lie flat if you put them on a table). Now rotate the plate by about 45° and move it down a little. The plate's the galaxy, the ring the path of the Earth around the sun. It just has to do with how things are tilted and oriented, no 4th-dimensional math needed.
John Freestone Yorkshire, UK
5:51am on Friday, February 10th, 2012
That's the first of your podcasts I've listened to, and I enjoyed it and learned a lot - one of the advantages of debunking things is that I learn more about them. A bit of a novice on astronomy, it was all a bit dense at times, but I got there. I'm left puzzling about why the center of our galaxy has a constant -29° declination and trying to relate that, and possible alignments, to the angle between the eclyptic and galactic plane, but the 4D geometry makes my head hurt.