Ask a Scientist
by Dr. Christopher Crockett
Dec 18, 2012 | 849 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Q: On December 21, the winter solstice, is there supposed to be an alignment of the Sun, Earth and other planets along with a rare orientation to the center of the galaxy?

The short answer is no.

Thanks to the Mayans rolling over their odometer, the 2012 winter solstice has become a hot topic.  Once again, the end of the world is upon us.  Some 2012 spokespeople predict an alignment of the Sun with the Galactic Center that will usher in Armageddon. Or a new age of human consciousness.  Possibly both.

We see the Milky Way Galaxy – a pancake-shaped conglomeration of a hundred billion suns – as a hazy band of stars in the sky.  You can see it tonight, shortly after sunset.  Stretching from east to west, the river of light flows through the constellations Orion, Cassiopeia and Cygnus. 

The center of our galaxy sits in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, 28,000 light years away. That’s 150 quadrillion miles. You can’t see Sagittarius right now because the Sun is sitting in front of it. 

But if you could see the stars during the day, you would see the band of the Milky Way passing through Sagittarius.  And our Sun.  But this is not unique to 2012.  The Sun has sat in the Milky Way every winter solstice for over a thousand years!

So where does this claim come from?

It starts with the complex motions of the Earth.

Our planet does not just rotate on its axis and orbit the sun.  Like a spinning top, the Earth also wobbles.  As it does, the North Pole traces out a large circle on the sky over a span of 26,000 years.  This has two effects.  One is to change which star is the North Star.  The other is to cause the location of the Sun on the solstices to drift against the background stars.

Starting in 1980, the winter solstice Sun started crossing the midline of the Milky Way. It has shifted slightly east on each successive solstice and it will continue to do so until 2016.  It crossed the midline in 1998 – 14 years ago. 

But even then, you could fit 12 full moons between the Sun and the true center of the galaxy. In fact, because of our solar system’s orientation, alignment of the Earth, Sun and Galactic Center is not physically possible!

Nor is the solar system passing through the plane of the galaxy, as is sometimes claimed. As the Sun orbits the galaxy – completing one trip every 225 million years – we also bob up and down, like a horse on a carousel.  The Sun, and all the planets, plunge through the galactic disk once every 33 million years. Currently, we’re perched about 100 light-years above the disk – and moving away from it.  The next passage through the disk isn’t scheduled for another 30 million years!

So no galactic alignments.  But what about planetary alignments?  

A perfect alignment occurs when all the planets form a nice orderly line across the solar system.  However, because the planetary orbits are all tilted relative to one another, true alignments aren’t actually possible.  The closest alignment is when the planets all appear within 25 degrees of each other.  On those occurrences, you could hide them all behind two outstretched hands. 

These sorts of alignments are not that rare, either.  They happen once or twice every century.  The next time the naked eye planets all cluster like this will be in 2040.  The last time was in the year 2000.

But in 2012, there are no alignments.  The planets are scattered all around the solar system.  

You can, however, see Saturn, Venus and Mercury lined up in the early morning hours.  If you find yourself up before sunrise, look east.  Saturn and Venus will be the brightest “stars” in the sky.  Mercury – being tiny, faint, and close to the Sun – is harder to find.  But if you miss them this week, take heart. They will be dazzling early rising stargazers for several weeks to come.

As with anything involving the Mayan calendar and the end of the world, take any claim you hear with a healthy dose of skepticism.  End of the world prophecies are common.  And since we’re here to read about them, they’ve clearly all failed.  This year won’t be any different.  

Personally, I plan on celebrating many more solstices to come!

Further reading: The website has a plethora of evidence-based resources surrounding 2012 claims. You’ll learn more than you ever imagined about galactic alignments, rogue comets, pole shifts, and hidden planets. Instead of hiding under the bed on December 21, learn something amazing about the universe instead!


Dr. Christopher Crockett is a science writer and astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.  He has spent the past several years looking for planets around young stars in our Galaxy. He is also a frequent guest speaker with the Pinhead Institute, and visits Telluride as often as he can.

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