Sky Talk January 2012: The Astronomy of 2012: Fact vs. Fiction

With so much hype and misinformation concerning the year 2012 currently in books, on television, in movies, and the subject of various conferences, this month’s column is designed to hopefully bring some science and common sense to this sensational topic as we begin the much-heralded year marking the end of the fabled Mayan calendar.

Let’s begin by asking just what’s so special about the “Galactic Alignment” we’re hearing so much about? Nothing! Every year on or about December 21st the Sun “aligns” with the center of our Milky Way Galaxy at the Winter Solstice. Supposedly it’s going to be more closely lined up than in recorded history. Yet, as is well-known to astronomers, it was actually closer to the center in 1998! (This stems from the subtleties of the galactic and ecliptic coordinate systems, which space prohibits covering here.) But in any case, the Sun will still be several degrees from being exactly over the galactic center in 2012. Even more significant is the fact that the alignment is only an apparent one—the actual center of our Galaxy is 26,000 light-years away (that’s 26,000 x 6,000,000,000,000 miles!). There can be no sudden drastic influx of radiation precisely at midnight on the 21st from the nucleus’ black hole devastating the Earth’s population, as is being claimed by some—nor will we be sucked in as others fear!

There’s also the “Great Dark Rift” that’s being talked a lot about as a kind of “roadway” into the center of the Galaxy. What’s being referred to is one of the many areas of dark obscuring clouds of gas and dust that line the spiral arms of the Galaxy. And there are at least six of these arms, with our Solar System here in the galactic boondocks being imbedded in an outer one. The dark rift seen in the summer and fall Milky Way in our local arm does not lead to the center of the Galaxy!

The thing that really puzzles me the most about the 2012 fiasco, as an astronomer, concerns the planet Venus. As the third brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon, this radiant orb held great importance to the Maya. And yet a very rare and spectacular event involving Venus that will occur during 2012 has been largely ignored by 2012 writers and speakers. On the late afternoon of June 5th, Venus will transit the face of Sun—an event that can be seen even with the unaided eye! (The transit will be featured in the June installment of Sky Talk along with tips on safely viewing it.) This happens in pairs separated by 8 years—the last having occurred in 2004—and then not again for more than a century (2117 being the next one)! Surely the Maya attached great significance to this spectacle. Should we not also?

I would like to conclude on a positive note about 2012. Raising public consciousness of the universe and our place in it as citizens of our home Galaxy is definitely happening because of all the attention being focused on 2012. This in turn leads to that “cosmic perspective” that my late friend and mentor Carl Sagan always talked about and felt was crucial to our survival as a species. In that sense, this year of 2012 is indeed significant.

—James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine and author of eight books on stargazing.