Precession of the
Earth's Rotation Axis


The Earth's rotation axis is not fixed in space. Like a rotating toy top, the direction of the rotation axis executes a slow precession with a period of 26,000 years (see following figure).

Pole Stars are Transient

Thus, Polaris will not always be the Pole Star or North Star. The Earth's rotation axis happens to be pointing almost exactly at Polaris now, but in 13,000 years the precession of the rotation axis will mean that the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra will be approximately at the North Celestial Pole, while in 26,000 more years Polaris will once again be the Pole Star.

Precession of the Equinoxes

Since the rotation axis is precessing in space, the orientation of the Celestial Equator also precesses with the same period. This means that the position of the equinoxes is changing slowly with respect to the background stars. This precession of the equinoxes means that the right ascension and declination of objects changes very slowly over a 26,000 year period. This effect is negligibly small for casual observing, but is an important correction for precise observations.

The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius (Almost)

Because of the precession of the equinoxes, the vernal equinox moves through all the constellations of the Zodiac over the 26,000 year precession period. Presently the vernal equinox is in the constellation Pisces and is slowly approaching Aquarius.


The Vernal Equinox

This is the origin of the "Age of Aquarius" celebrated in the musical Hair: a period when according to astrological mysticism and related hokum there will be unusual harmony and understanding in the world. We could certainly use a dose of harmony and understanding in this old world; unfortunately, it is unlikely to come because of something as irrelevant as the position of the vernal equinox with respect to the constellations of the Zodiac.


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