What if I told you that in a couple thousand years from now, your Zodiac sign would no longer be your Zodiac sign? It may be devastating to devout followers of astrology, but the relative positions of the Zodiac constellations are changing very, very slowly, at least from our viewpoint. This is due to a process called precession, the continuous, gradual wobble that changes Earth’s axial orientation in space. The Earth really is like a spinning top – just an extremely slow one. In fact, this top only makes a complete spin every 26,000 years.
Because Earth protrudes at its equator, the planet is not quite a perfect sphere. The equator is also tilted with respect to the ecliptic plane, and as a result, the gravitational attractions of the Sun and the Moon attempt to draw the equatorial bulge into the ecliptic plane. In simpler words, gravity from the Sun and the Moon tries to pull the Earth into straightness. However, because Earth tends to keep rotating, gravity fails to straighten out the Earth and instead causes the axis to precess.
It is not likely that we will see any major changes during our lifetimes, but the night sky will look a lot different thousands of years from now. The North Celestial Pole is pointed toward the star Polaris now, but in 3,000 BC, the North Star was actually Thuban, a star in the constellation Draco. In roughly 12,000 years, Vega, a star in the constellation Lyra, will be the new North Star. Precession also alters the points in Earth’s orbit at which equinoxes and solstices occur; this means that in 13,000 years, the seasons on Earth will have switched times of year.
3 thoughts on “Our Earth, the Spinning Top?”
Great post! Have you looked at how the rotational axes of the other planets in our solar system compare to Earths? You might find one is turning on it’s size.
Great explanations Sam! I really like your graphics choices, they’re very helpful.
Nice animation Sam! I captured some frames from your animation and created an animation to illustrate a short cycle precession of the Earth. Kindly let me know if you are alright on using some images of your animation in my webpage. Thanks.