Have you heard the Earth shattering news (to be read with sarcasm)? Your zodiac sign may have changed! So if you were once a Pisces, like I was, you may now be an Aquarius. To make things worst, there’s now a thirteenth astrological sign, Ophiuchus, and it’s one that nobody can figure out how to say. I can’t imagine how many relationships are now in peril, how many new found jobs will be lost, or how many missed opportunities now exist. So what are we to make of this
nonsense change? Hell, why is this happening now after thousands of years of studying the stars?
The truth is, to astronomers this is old news. Very, very, very old news. Slow shifts in astrological signs and even a thirteenth zodiac member have been known for two millennia now. To understand why this is really nothing new, let’s break down all the players in the story.
We begin with a discussion on constellations. A constellation is really nothing more than arbitrary grouping of stars that lie in close proximity to each other on the sky. The stars that make up a constellation are not necessarily—and in fact rarely are—physically connected or even related to each other. For example, the stars that make up one of the most recognizable constellations Orion (shown to the right), are at all kinds of distances. The bright red star on the top left (Betelgeuse) is 429 lightyears away while the bright blue star on the bottom right (Rigel) is 777 light-years distant. If you were to travel to another nearby star in our galaxy, then Orion would look completely different. From a historical perspective, stars found their ways into constellations because ancient cultures would relate the apparent star patterns to mythological beings and tales.
The use of constellations have not been forgotten by modern astronomers. However, their purpose has change. Today constellations play the same role as borders do on Earth. Just as political boundaries are used to identify large regions of land, constellations allow astronomers to quickly describe sections of the sky. If an astronomer says they’re observing the star Beta Orionis, it’s immediately known that the object being studied is the second brightest star in the constellation of Orion (beta being the second letter in the Greek alphabet and Orionis designating the Orion constellation).
An obvious problem with this approach is that constellations are usually identified by a small number of bright stars. What about all those dim, overlooked stars that lie in-between the constellations? To resolve this problem, in 1930 the International Astronomical Union adopted the constellation boundaries suggested by noted Belgian astronomer Eugène Delporte. The constellation boundaries were chosen such that every patch of the sky falls within the jurisdiction of one and only one constellation. Today there are 88 official constellations recognized by the astronomical community. The below figure shows the constellation boundaries in the region around Orion.
During the daytime hours stars cannot be seen because the Earth’s atmosphere spreads the Sun’s incident light across the sky. (By the way, this is why the sky is blue.) If we could remove this atmospheric effect then we would observe the Sun “in” a particular constellation. The thirteen constellations that the Sun passes through during the course of the year are collectively known as the zodiac. Yes I said thirteen. During the early part of December the Sun passes through a region of the sky assigned to Ophiuchus. The figure below represents what the sky would look like at noon on December 11, minus that atmospheric effect. Notice that the Sun is not within the official boundaries of Scorpius, which is the normal astrological designation assigned to this time of year. The unidentified region of the sky is Ophiuchus. The reason it’s unidentified is that even in Starry Night, the program I used to produce these figures, there are only twelve zodiac members.
This brings us to the recent news stories about the zodiac shuffle. In a local story, astronomer Parke Kunkle of the Minnesota Planetarium Society, told reporters that the traditional astrological signs have shifted. In reality all that has been done is that someone took the time to calculate the exact dates the Sun passes through the zodiac constellations, including Ophiuchus, and compared them to the generally accepted astrological signs. This isn’t anything new. Astronomers have know for a long time about the existence of a thirteenth zodiac sign. At a minimum, you could argue it’s been known in the astronomical community since 1930 when the official constellation boundaries were accepted. It’s not a stretch either to argue that astronomers knew of this even before 1930 because some of the bright stars of Ophiuchus do dip down into the zodiac.
But that’s just the part of the story about the thirteenth zodiac sign. There’s still the bit about the shifting of most everyone’s astrological sign. For that we have to introduce some more science.
The Earth is continually executing three major motions: it orbits the Sun in one year, it rotates about its own axis in a day, and the Earth’s rotation axis wobbles (precesses). It’s the last type of motion we’re interested in here.
Precession is a slow wobble. Think of a child’s top like the one shown to the left of the below picture. A top will spin very fast about a central axis, but that axis will move around in a circle at a much slower pace. For the Earth, the precession rate is very slow. It takes approximately 26,000 years for the Earth’s wobble to complete one circle. The planet’s precession leads to two observable outcomes. The first is that the North Star changes in time. For now Polaris is the North Star, but in the future other North Stars will come and go. In 12,000 years, the bright star Vega will be the North Star.
The other result of the Earth’s precession is that the dates in which the Sun passes through the various zodiac constellations progressively changes. Because the Earth’s precession rate is very slow, this shift is likewise slow. Recall, that astrology has been around for thousands of years which isn’t the complete 26,000 year precessional rate, but it’s enough to offset the zodiac dates by a noticeable amount. In fact, the accumulative shift over the last few thousand years is about one whole constellation. The below figure is the same as before—noontime on December 11—but now the year is 4011. Notice how the Sun is now in Libra? In the two thousands years from today, the Sun has slowly drifted over one zodiacal sign as it has done in the thousands of years since the original astrological signs had been decreed.
Much like with the thirteenth zodiac member, the Earth’s precession has been known for two thousand years. So again, the shift in your astrological sign is old news to astronomers.
Astronomers now possess such accurate models of the Earth’s motions that they can tell you, or anyone that has or will ever live, their exact astrological sign. What you do with that information is up to you. Unfortunately the reason that these recent stories on changes in astrological signs have gone so viral is that a substantial fraction of the population seems to believe that the position of heavenly bodies have some kind of influence on their daily lives. Most any newspaper in America has a daily horoscope, but not a a regular science section. Ugh.
Recently Coastal Carolina University, my employer, released a bunch of wallpaper designs to promote the University. Admittedly there’s some pretty cool designs, especially those that feature Chauncey the Chanticleer. There’s one particular wallpaper that really caught my attention
Of course it caught my attention. It’s astronomy related. Besides, my favorite color is purple.
Overlooking the fact that there’s no Chauncey constellation, there are a number of notable errors with this wallpaper that drive me crazy. Let’s start with the stars. If you look at a star through a telescope then it’s true that they usually have spikes radiating away from the central star. Take a look at this image of the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters).
Notice how the stars have four spikes emanating from the stars. Also, the spikes are more pronounced for the brightest stars. The origins of these spikes actually has to do with the type of telescope used to view the stars.
A reflecting telescope works by bouncing light off a larger primary mirror at the back of the telescope up to a smaller secondary mirror toward the front of the telescope. The secondary mirror is held in place by what’s called a spider. A typical spider has four vanes. Shown to the right is a typical reflecting telescope. As you look down the barrel you can see the primary mirror at the bottom, while the spider is the crosshair-looking device toward the opening. As the starlight passes through the telescope it will diffract around those vanes. In other words, the light is deflected from its ordinary path. To make a long story short, this change in path is made evident by the four diffraction spikes we see in pictures of stars, like what’s shown above for the Pleiades. The issue is more pronounced for brighter stars because more starlight is diffracted.
This brings me to my first point of contention with the wallpaper. If you look at the stars, many of them have diffraction spikes. However, diffraction spikes are an artifact of looking at stars through a telescope, specifically reflecting telescopes. The wallpaper image covers a very wide field of view, and it includes a foreground palmetto tree and grass, which altogether implies that this view does not represent what someone would see looking through a telescope. So why do some of the stars have diffraction spikes?
Problem two with the Chauncey Constellation wallpaper are the “shooting stars” seen on the left side. I purposely called them shooting stars because in the wallpaper it’s clear from the diffraction spikes that these are meant to be stars. First off, shooting stars have nothing to do with stars. They’re actually small pieces of debris that is flying around in our Solar System. Second, when a shooting star passes through our atmosphere—which is what astronomers call a meteor—it’s path is not curved like that shown in the wallpaper. It’s mostly straight with maybe a slight arc. Check out the August 16, 2010 APOD shown below, which shows a meteor shower over Quebec.
Notice how the incoming meteor trails are straight, not curved. So what’s the deal with the highly curved path of the “shooting stars” on the wallpaper?
Now for my biggest beef with the Chauncey Constellation wallpaper. Take a close look at the Moon. Inside the crescent moon you can see stars!!! This would imply that the Moon physically changed shape during the course of its lunar phase cycle. Sometimes its full. At other times it looks like a boomerang, or a semi-circle, and at yet other times a bloated semi-circle. In reality the lunar phases are due to the Moon’s position relative to the Earth and the Sun. At any moment half of the lunar surface is lit up by sunlight. Since the Moon orbits the Earth, how much of this lit half is visible to Earth observers changes. A crescent phase, like the one depicted in the wallpaper, occurs when the Moon has moved in its orbit just a bit past the point where it’s aligned with the Sun’s direction. The image to the left shows a photograph of a real crescent Moon. Notice that the dark side of the Moon is actually visible. This is due to light that has reflected off the Earth, traveled to the Moon, and returned back to the Earth for us to see—an effect known as Earthshine. More importantly it’s not transparent. In my Astro 101 class we spend a considerable amount of time discussing the lunar phases. It’s a difficult topic but I wouldn’t expect any of the students to make such a grievous error as shown in the wallpaper.
So I have to ask the question, where was I when this wallpaper was made? Why wasn’t I consulted? I know the purpose of this is particular wallpaper is to be fanciful but geez, let’s get some things right. Especially the part about the Moon.
By the way, even with it’s flaws, I’m still using this as my wallpaper on two computers and my iPad.
I guess we now have definitive proof that humans haven’t been to the Moon. Check out this photo posted on Picture is Unrelated,
I mean really, how could a cat survive on the Moon without oxygen, liquid water, and mice to chase? The only sensible conclusion is that the whole Moon landing was faked. A cat must have gotten loose on the Moon landing stage. This is just another one of those photos the government tried to hide but has now been leaked.
Since this is a new blog, I want to be clear that I’m being sar-cat-stic here.