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The Galactic Eclipse and You

January 7, 2009 on 4:41 pm | In Astronomy |

Facebook is kind of a neat toy. I’ve managed to find a bunch of people that I haven’t seen since College, High School, and in some cases, Elementary School. Upon discovering who I had become and what I do now, some of them let me know about their curiosities.

Debbie was one of them. And she was telling me about a show she saw on the History Channel, which talked about the impending galactic eclipse of 2012.

And how do you suppose the History Channel, paragons of (cough) scientific accuracy and truthfulness (cough), presented this? They talk about all of the following:

  • The end of the world
  • The Earth plunging into Chaos
  • Nostradamus
  • The Winter Solstice as a harbinger of the Dark Times

Now, Debbie’s always been pretty level-headed and fair-minded. So what did she ask me to do?

Leave off the fluff and just tell me what it means from a scientific standpoint.

So let’s go one step at a time. First off, what is a galactic eclipse? The Milky Way is a flat disc, that looks like this from the top:

But looks like this from where we are:

Our Solar System, right now, is about 25-27,000 light years from the center of the galaxy. It’s also very close to the center of the thin part of the disc, as you can see from the picture. As it revolves around the center of the galaxy, it moves, periodically, closer and farther away. This works the same way that the Moon moves closer to and farther from the Earth, or the Earth moves closer to and farther from the Sun: they make ellipses, not perfect circles.

Well, the Solar System also moves up and down through the galactic disc. It does so relatively slowly, moving at only about 7 kilometers/second, and taking about 63 million years to make a complete cycle. That means twice during every 63 million years, the Sun and the entire Solar System pass dead-center through the plane of the Milky Way. So at some lucky point, the Earth, Sun, Moon, and the center of the Galaxy are all going to align.

As best as we can tell, this perfect alignment happens rarely, about once every 31 million years. And it happens, this time, to occur sometime between the years 1983 and 2018. (The picture above is someone’s estimate, not an actual picture.) It’s a very neat and very rare astronomical event, and it’s really neat that it’s happening during our lifetimes! It’s a little unfortunate that even with our best measurements, this 35-year range is the best we can narrow it down to.

Other than it being neat, however, what’s its significance?

That’s right: absolutely nothing. If nothing happens slightly below the center of the galactic disc or slightly above the center of the galactic disc, why should anything special happen in the direct center of it? There’s nothing special about its magnetic fields, its gravitational fields, its density, or any other property we can even fathom. It’s not even a doomsday scenario, because there isn’t even a possible physical explanation of anything that could happen.

This is not the first time I’ve read something contending that the world is going to end in 2012. So be afraid if you like. Buy your duct tape and stock up on your canned goods. But don’t fear the galactic eclipse; you’re better off going out and watching for it!


32 Comments »

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  1. Dark Helmet: I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.
    Lone Starr: What’s that make us?
    Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing!

    Comment by Brian — January 7, 2009 #

  2. I swear I’ve been on that highway, heading West in Northern Arizona. I don’t remember the sign, but the landscape of absolutely nothing looks familiar.

    Comment by ethan — January 7, 2009 #

  3. Always enjoy the posts, and being friends on Facebook! it is fun to reconnect with old friends and make new ones too, like you! keep up the good work. when’s the anniversary of the blog anyway? I have been following it for almost a year myself.

    Comment by Dan W. — January 7, 2009 #

  4. Dan,
    Thanks! The anniversary is a week from Saturday, on January 17th; I should do something to celebrate, shouldn’t I?

    Comment by ethan — January 7, 2009 #

  5. Ah, yes, I’ve been seeing the ads for “Armageddon Week” on the History Channel. Must be about all those times throughout history that armageddon has occurred. (I was going to link here to show that it hasn’t, but apparently since the last time I checked, it has! Dang…)

    Comment by benhead — January 8, 2009 #

  6. So wait, I’m confused, you wrote:

    “As best as we can tell, this perfect alignment happens rarely, about once every 31 million years. And it happens, this time, to occur sometime between the years 1983 and 2018.”

    But the History Channel Program (I watched like 20 min and turned it off because it was crap) seemed pretty certain the alignment will happen exact on the Dec 21st 2012.

    Is that the exact date or are they just assuming based on the Mayan calendar ect ect

    ps: finally taking the second half of physics this semester… want to come back and TA for me?

    Comment by Andrew — January 8, 2009 #

  7. Andrew,

    You’re right: the History Channel is crap for this. Do you really think we can tell the difference between a few million kilometers (much less a few hundred kilometers) when we look at distances that are thousands of *light years*?

    Lewis & Clark college out here in Portland wants to hire me full time as a Physics Professor, so it’s doubtful I’ll be back for TA-ing for you.

    You don’t need me anyway; you’ve got Marlea to tutor you, right?

    Ben,

    You’ll have to prove that 1=0 using your famous divide-by-zero proof to set that site straight.

    Comment by ethan — January 8, 2009 #

  8. I figured they were stretching the truth for ratings!
    And I guess I’ll have to cross my fingers and hope for a professor half as good as you and annoy Marlea all semester

    Comment by Andrew — January 8, 2009 #

  9. […] Posts Did a Gamma-Ray Burst cause the Trilobite Extinction?The Galactic Eclipse and YouThe Green Flash at SunsetWeekend Diversion: Your favorite old DOS games!Can the Moon Help Solve […]

    Pingback by Did a Gamma-Ray Burst cause the Trilobite Extinction? | Starts With A Bang! — January 9, 2009 #

  10. […] but they’re 100% right, which is 50% better than what you get from the science channel, and 100% better than most of the science on the history channel. And with more halloween costumes than any other […]

    Pingback by How to build a time machine? | Starts With A Bang! — April 4, 2009 #

  11. Passing through the equatorial plane of the galaxy is not the same thing as an alignment of the earth, sun, and galactic center. That alignment makes an eclipse, either of the center of the galaxy (earth’s view of the center of the galaxy blocked by the sun) or of the sun (sun behind the earth when looking out from the center of the galaxy).

    Now, since the earth revolves around the sun once every year, if it (the earth) is ever behind the sun when looking from the earth towards the center of the galaxy, then it must be so positioned once every year.

    The tilt of the earth is irrelevant to that effect, and thus the precession of the axis of the earth is also irrelevant to the occurrence of galactic eclipses.

    The movement of the solar system above and below the equatorial plane of the galaxy would change the time of the year in which the galactic eclipse would occur, since the orbital plane of the earth (around the sun) is nearly perpendicular to the equatorial plane of the galaxy — but the eclipse would still occur every year.

    Anything wrong or missing from that analysis?

    Comment by Jim Farmer — August 15, 2009 #

  12. As you know there is big fear being past on through the media programs and this 12 21 2012 end of the world galactic eclips alinement. I was wondering if during this eclips. Would the Earth be blocked and deprived of radiant heat from the sun and galactic complete center alinement. (radiant heat is heat witch travels through space with out heating the space it travels through but heats the frist thing it touches) hence a new Ice age on Earth?

    Comment by Michael Thompson — January 5, 2010 #

  13. Hi,
    Our knowledge is not adequate to understand the phenomenon.Early civilizations never measured gravity, they measured astronomical events only as an epoch in cyclic time events.Even if we consider Gravity effects “G” is only due to “Dynamic” balancing of the mass of rest of universe in space time.We are in no way to say what effect it will have.But look at this amazing change that happens when earth crosses this galactic equator, the rotation vector changes its direction.Do we have any particles that has spin coming out from galactic centre parallel to its rotation, then that particle afterwards should reverse its spin after transit! is anything wrong in this argument?!

    Comment by Abhishek — January 6, 2010 #

  14. Hi,
    One more argument, exact timing might be possible we have neighbouring stars that are members of same milky way, if we measure its axis of revolution around milky way, the vector reversal should happen after transit correct!

    Comment by Abhishek — January 6, 2010 #

  15. Hi,
    This is a piece of a approximately nearly translated verse from our ancient wisdom.
    question:Why everything in this universe is moving and rotating?
    Answer:Because ether is spread all over and homogenous , hence it cannot be measured. It is the ether that is really moving, and makes to appear that the rest of the universe as spread and moving.
    I do not know how correct it is! But if it is curvature due to space time lines created by huge mass at center of galactic plane, will it not result in vector reversal to take place.

    Comment by Abhishek — January 7, 2010 #

  16. Is it true that Orion will be pointed into the centre of the galaxy too?

    Comment by Halfstar — January 17, 2010 #

  17. What about polar shifts? There’s plenty of theories/explanations of what effect the alignment will have on gravitational and magnetic phenomena.

    Comment by Mike — January 21, 2010 #

  18. if we do have the ”galatical elclipse” wouldnt give our astronaut’s a good explination of where to find earth type enviroments? plz txt me bac or go to
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    Comment by brian — April 5, 2010 #

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  20. During this galactic alignment - where will the sun be? Behind us or in front of us - (facing the COTG). I am not going to venture to say that there ISN’T energy hitting us from the COTG but If there where, I feel as though the burning ball of gas might disrupt it at least.

    - what this means? who know’s, but it blows my mind that Mayans were able to predict with so much certainty with out the accuracy of measurement tools that we enjoy today.

    Comment by Jason — April 20, 2010 #

  21. Then again, I guess even if it is behind us, perhaps the head on collision of sun energy and COTG energy may have an effect? (Wonder Power Twins - Activate!)

    Comment by Jason Morin — April 20, 2010 #

  22. WE ALL KNOW WHAT COULD HAPPEN WHEN WE TAKE A MAGNIFYING GLASS OUT IN THE SUN. ISN’T IT PLAUSIBLE TO THINK THAT THE GRAVITY OF OUR SU WILL BEND THE LIGHT AND ALL THE OTHER FORMS OF ENERGY FROM THE CENTER OF OUR GALAXY AND FOCUS IT HERE ON EARTH?

    Comment by DANGEROUS ENERGIES — January 6, 2011 #

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  27. what is the COTOG

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