Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 25, 2013

Planetary Orbits and Terms, 101


I’ve been made aware lately that some people who profess certain types of pseudoscientific beliefs, such as Mars’ orbit being ridiculously eccentric (highly elliptical), do not understand basic orbital terminology and geometry.

With that in mind, I thought this would be a good post not only because of that, but also towards a general explanation of terms for people who hear them from time-to-time who may not have known what they meant. I should also probably mention (normally goes without saying) that these are basic terms and definitions and are not unique to me and are not unique to any given field.

Terms! (Vocab Words!!)

Some geometry terms, parts of an ellipse:

  • Major Axis: The longest axis of an ellipse (goes through the center).
  • Minor Axis: The shortest axis of an ellipse (goes through the center).
  • Foci/Focus(es): All ellipses have two foci, or two “focuses.” The foci have the property (or ellipses have the property) such that if you add the distance between the point and each focus, every point along the ellipse will have the same distance. This leads to the “pins and string” method of drawing an ellipse. In a circle – a special form of an ellipse, the two foci are in the same location, the center.
  • Center: The point exactly between the two foci. And the intersection of both the major and minor axes.
  • Eccentricity of Ellipse: Always between 0 (a perfect circle) and 1 (a line). It is defined as the SQRT(1-(minor/major)^2).

Some astronomy terms, parts of an ellipse:

  • Semi-Major Axis: Half the longest axis of an ellipse (starts from the center or edge, goes to the edge or center).
  • Semi-Minor Axis: Half the shortest axis of an ellipse (starts from the center or edge, goes to the edge or center).
  • (Primary) Focus: In the solar system, the sun is at one focus of the ellipse for all planetary orbits, and there is nothing physical in the second focus. For moons orbiting planets, the “primary” focus is the planet, there is nothing physical at the other focus.
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: Eccentricity of an orbit is typically defined as: (apoapsis – periapsis) / (apoapsis + periapsis).
  • Ellipticity: Rarely used, sometimes confused with eccentricity. Ellipticity is just major/minor axis and is always a value greater than 1 (1 = circle). A value of 2 would mean the major axis is twice as long as the major axis, though in this case the eccentricity would be 0.87.

Some astronomy terms, other parts of an orbit:

  • Peri-: Prefix meaning “closest.” If you’re a planet on an orbit around the sun, your perihelion is the closest approach to the sun. If you’re around Earth, it’s perigee, moon is perilune, Jupiter is perijov, and I’m sure there are others. Generic term for any body is “periapsis.” Periapsis can be calculated as the semi-major axis multiplied by (1-eccentricity).
  • Apo-/Ap-: Prefix meaning “farthest.” If you’re a planet on an orbit around the sun, your aphelion is the farthest approach from the sun. If you’re around Earth, it’s apogee, moon is apolune, Jupiter is apojov, and I’m sure there are others. Generic term for any body is “apoapsis.” Apoapsis can be calculated as the semi-major axis multiplied by (1+eccentricity).

Some perspective terms. These are visual things, as viewed from one object relative to another. Formally as parts of an orbit, for orbital mechanics, they are irrelevant.

  • Conjunction: When one object appears at the same location in space as another object, as seen from a third object. For example, when viewed from Mars, if the moon Phobos appears in front of the sun (so you get an eclipse), then this is a conjunction.
  • Inferior Conjunction: When the conjunction happens such that the object conjuncting is physically “in front of” the other object as seen from the third. In the previous example, a moon creating a solar eclipse (blocking part of the sun) is always in an inferior conjunction with the sun.
  • Superior Conjunction: When the conjunction happens such that the object conjuncting is physically “behind” the other object as seen from the third. In the previous example, when the moon creates a solar eclipse (blocks part of the sun), the sun is in superior conjunction. As another example, when Mars appears to go behind the sun as seen from Earth, and so we can’t get any data back from spacecraft, Mars is in superior conjunction.
  • Opposition: When one object appears in the opposite location in space as another object, as seen from a third object. For example, when viewed from Earth, a full moon is in opposition to the sun, because as the sun sets, the full moon rises, so they are directly opposite each other in the sky.

As a matter of orbital mechanics, an inferior planet (one inside Earth’s orbit) can never be in opposition with the sun. And, as a matter of orbital mechanics, a superior planet (one outside Earth’s orbit) can never be at an inferior conjunction with the sun (appear between Earth and the Sun).

Applying These Terms

Let’s look at Earth’s orbit. Earth’s perihelion is 147 million km, the aphelion is 152 million km. The eccentricity is therefore 0.017 ((152-147)/(152+147) = 0.017). The major axis is aphelion+perihelion = 299 million km. The semi-major axis (what’s often quoted as Earth’s “average distance” from the Sun) is 299/2 ≈150 million km.

Notice that these have nothing to do with conjunction or opposition — by definition, and in practicality, they cannot, because opposition and conjunction requires three objects, not two. Earth and the sun could be in conjunction or opposition from a given third object / vantage point at any time regardless of where Earth is in its orbit.

Applying These Terms to Mars

We have a bit more we can do here if we consider Earth’s vantage point when looking at Mars and the Sun.

As before, we can look at its orbit in isolation, independent of Earth, because looking at it in some other way does not make any sense. Mars’ perihelion is about 207 million km. Mars’ aphelion is about 249 million km. (By the way, these two bits of data are available pretty much anywhere online, but I tend to use the very basic table at NASA’s Planetary Fact Sheet.) With those two numbers, we can calculate others. For example, Mars’ eccentricity is easily calculated to be 0.094: (249-207)/(249+207)=0.09. Much larger than Earth’s, but not as large as Mercury’s (0.21) or Pluto (0.24) or most comets and even Earth-crossing asteroids. We can also calculate its semi-major axis: (249+207)/2 ≈ 228 million km, which is what NASA lists as the distance from the Sun of Mars.

We can also look at the terms opposition and conjunction. Opposition is when Mars appears opposite in the sky relative to the sun. Physically, this happens with Sun-Earth-Mars would appear in a line to someone looking down/across/up towards the solar system. This means Earth can be any distance from the sun (between its perihelion and aphelion) and Mars can be any distance from the sun (between its perihelion and aphelion). It doesn’t matter. However, Earth and Mars, along their orbits, are the closest they will ever get. This means that Mars opposition means Mars will be anywhere from 102 million km from Earth to 55 million km from Earth (a factor of nearly 2 difference!). This is calculated simply by taking Mars’ aphelion minus Earth’s perihelion (249-147=102) and Mars’ perihelion minus Earth’s aphelion (207-152=55). As in, the closest, physically, that Mars can be to Earth is when opposition just happens to coincide with when Mars is at its perihelion and Earth is at its aphelion. The farthest, physically, that Mars can be from Earth during opposition is when opposition happens to coincide with when Earth is at aphelion and Mars is at aphelion.

Conjunction is when Mars appears at the same spot in the sky relative to the sun. Because it’s a superior planet (outside Earth’s orbit), it can only be in superior conjunction (on the opposite side of the sun as from Earth). This means that, during opposition, Mars can be anywhere from 354 million km to 401 million km from Earth. This closest would be when conjunction just happens to coincide with when both Earth and Mars are at perihelion; the farthest is when conjunction happens when both are at aphelion.

With all that in mind, practically speaking, the distance between Earth and Mars during conjunction and opposition varies from event to event. Because each have different years, while perihelion and aphelion tend to happen at the same longitude in their orbit (time of year — as in perihelion for Earth is in January every year, so aphelion is in July every year), the time of year that opposition and conjunction occur vary from event to event.

Earth and Mars orbiting the sun.

Earth and Mars orbiting the sun.

This is shown to some extent in this animation from Wikipedia. You can see how oppositions and conjunctions will vary from year-to-year and that the distance will, as well, given Mars’ orbital distance changing much more than Earth’s.

Some may remember back in July 2003 when opposition happened almost exactly when Earth was at aphelion and Mars at perihelion. It was widely reported, such as in this NASA press release, and it’s been widely hoaxed since then. Opposition since 2003 has not been as bright because Mars has not been as close to its perihelion and Earth has not been as close to its aphelion. They won’t line up again like that for roughly 60,000 years.


This has been a lengthy explanation, but I hope that I’ve explained everything clearly by this point. Importantly, one should not confuse opposition with perihelion, and one should not confuse conjunction with aphelion. After all, Mercury and Venus cannot be in in opposition, ever, and yet both have perihelion and aphelion points, by definition.

For those wondering where this is coming from, well, back in 2011, I wrote a lengthy post about some of Mike Bara’s claims, and the last one was his definition of an ellipse. He claimed that Mars has an orbital eccentricity that is very high. Specifically, he wrote, “In fact, Mars’s orbit is so eccentric that its distance from Earth goes from 34 million miles at its closest to 249 million miles at its greatest.” Mike uses this as evidence to support his idea that planets are birthed in pairs, flung off via fission from the sun.

What he was referring to was the average distance between the two during opposition and conjunction. Which, as I’ve just explained (and explained with diagrams in that post), has nothing to do with perihelion and aphelion, which are how you get eccentricity. Opposition and conjunction have nothing to do with aphelion and perihelion. More recently on his blog, he has attacked me while defending his claim that Mars is on a highly eccentric orbit. Note that I never said Mars’ orbit is not eccentric (see 3 paragraphs below: “Except …”). It has the second-highest eccentricity of any planet (since Pluto is not a planet). It’s half as eccentric as Mercury yet around 6 times as eccentric as Earth’s. But, it’s 0.09 because of its min and max distances from the Sun, not its min and max distances from Earth.

Venus has the lowest eccentricity of any planet (0.007), and yet its minimum distance from Earth (its aphelion, our perihelion) is a mere 38 million km, and its farthest distance from Earth (both aphelion) is 261 million km, a factor of almost 7 difference.

But, getting back to what Mike versus I wrote, Mike wrote: “Now, let’s examine your statement that “It’s really simply incredibly stupid of Mike to claim that Mars’ orbit is highly eccentric.” Oh really?” Mike then goes on to point out that its orbit is the second-highest eccentricity-wise. And then wrote: “Excluding Pluto, which is no longer considered a planet, Mars orbit is the 2nd most elliptical of all the “planets.” You can see from the graph that it is far more eccentric than Earth’s, exactly as I characterized it. Put another way, Earth’s relative distance to the Sun varies by only about 3.1 million miles in the course of one orbit (year). Mars’ orbit, by contrast, varies by as much as 26.5 million miles over the course of a Martian year. Obviously, Mars’ orbit is more eccentric by an order of magnitude. How Stuart fails to grasp this I do not know. Maybe he’s just stupid.”

Except, what I wrote is quote-mined in that context. What I wrote, if you go to my original post, was this: “It’s really simply incredibly stupid of Mike to claim that Mars’ orbit is highly eccentric because it comes as close as about 0.38 A.U. (“astronomical unit” is the distance between the sun and Earth) but goes as far as 2.67 A.U.” Given the diagram that accompanied that text, it was clear those numbers are relative to Earth. I stand by that statement when it’s read in full context. It’s not eccentric because of its distance from Earth during opposition versus conjunction, it’s eccentric because of its distance from the sun during aphelion and perihelion. In fact, when calling me stupid for not grasping Mars’ eccentric orbit, Mike directly quotes the numbers that support what I stated and not what he did.

Final Thoughts

I suspect that if Mike reads this, he will still claim that I am mistaken somehow. It’s odd that he would fight so much over something so trivial instead of just admitting he made a mistake and moving on. After all, he claimed later in his attack that it’s not even important to his overall point.

Why then am I devoting time to pointing out and not moving on from something so trivial? Because I consider this to be the heart of this blog and what I do as education and public outreach: Using a real-life example of where someone goes wrong in their thinking to teach something. In this case, I had the context to get into some basics of orbits and definitions that people don’t often learn or remember if they had learned it. And, with the idea of how NOT to apply these terms, I find that people usually better remember how to use them correctly.

But, I don’t expect Mike to agree. Why? Well, his latest is that he’s promoting his new book, “Ancient Aliens on Mars” (there, Mike, I gave you a plug). He has put up a Picasa album with, I presume, images from the book (considering that’s the title of the album). In the second set of five images, he goes over ellipses. With specific notes to me. And, makes the same, fundamental mistakes. Including one figure labeled “”Perihelion” or Opposition” with the caption “Explanation of Mars Opposition, for Stuart Robbins.” And, there is another image showing “Aphelion” which just shows conjunction, and it has been captioned “Pay attention Stuart.”

Yup, I paid attention, and Mike, you’re still wrong in your terms and definitions. And I have been much more polite about it than you.


June 9, 2010

Terry Nazon’s Astronomy: Just Plain Wrong


I wanted to take a brief pause from writing lectures for the intro astronomy class I’m teaching (don’t worry guys, the one for tomorrow is already written!) and head down a different path for a few moments.

Some may consider me a glutton for punishment. Considering my recent run-in of being threatened by an astrologer, I’ve been following her a bit on Twitter to see what she’s up to in her astrological prognostications. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Get Your Astronomy Right!

Alright, I’ll say it to start off with to let everyone know where I stand: I do not “believe” in astrology. I trust the studies that have shown it no better than random guessing and that have shown it has no predictive power better than cold reading and self-reporting positive results for positive predictions. I don’t see any mechanism by which it could work, and none that have been proposed by astrologers actually have any physical validity unless they want to re-write the laws of physics.

That said, if you’re going to be an astrologer, AT LEAST GET YOUR ASTRONOMY RIGHT!!!

I honestly don’t know if this is common to most astrologers, or if it just happens to be Terry Nazon who is, well, I’ll be polite and just say apparently ignorant of astronomy and where stuff is in the sky. It’s a little hard to believe considering that astrology’s entire foundation is based on where stuff is in the sky, but, well, facts are facts.

I showed in my series on Nazon before (part 1, part 2, and part 3) that she is apparently fairly ignorant of where objects are in the actual sky, and this is seriously not a case where you just have to take my word for it. Go download any free astronomy sky-display software, look at a star chart yourself, or download a commercial or shareware software. You will be able to demonstrably see that what I stated in my previous series is accurate. (I’m not going to provide star charts this time unless asked for in Comments because I think it’s fairly redundant at this point … and because I need to write a homework set to hand out for tomorrow.)

What’s Going on This Time?

14 hours ago from the time of this writing, so I guess around 6AM MDT (mountain daylight time for those not in the US), Nazon tweeted, “Mercury enters Gemini it’s home placement. Expects things to start moving quickly….”

This intrigued me. I don’t know anything about Mercury’s “home placement,” but based on my experience on my previous series about Terry Nazon (part 1, part 2, and part 3), I wanted to check this. I was not disappointed. At the moment, Mercury is on the Aries side of Taurus, actually having just entered Taurus on June 5 (5 days ago as of writing this). It won’t be until very late in the day on June 25 (that’s in 15 days) that Mercury will enter Gemini. Interesting.

On Monday, so about 2 days ago, Nazon tweeted (and put on her Facebook page): “Mars the planet of action enters Virgo where it last transitied [sic] July 2008. Mars transit around the zodiac is about 2 1/2 yrs. The last time Mars was in Virgo Saturn had just begun it’s transit of Virgo too. Now the two meet up again as Saturn ends its transit through Virgo.”

Also interesting. I love conjunctions, they’re actually really cool to photograph. I showed a conjunction to my class yesterday of the five planets that the ancient civilizations knew about in a photo taken a few years ago. But anyway, back to the claim. I took a look, and yet again, Mars is not anywhere near Virgo. It’s on the Cancer side of Leo right now, though Virgo is on the other side, and Saturn is currently reasonably close to the Leo side of Virgo.

However, Mars moves through the sky much more slowly than Mercury. As a consequence, while Terry Nazon was about 2 weeks off for her Mercury prediction, she’s a full 40 days of for her Mars prognostication. Mars will not enter Virgo until July 19 (actually July 20 for about 1/3 of the world).

(As a side note, about a month later on August 12 there is a VERY cool conjunction between Mars, Venus, Saturn, a thin crescent moon, AND Mercury that will be visible early in the morning evening.)

About the other part of that claim — when Mars last transited (moved through) Virgo, it did so between August 8, 2008, and October 15, 2008. It started doing this reasonably close to Saturn, though that’s almost due to definition: Saturn’s orbit around the sun takes about 30 Earth years. From 1 Earth year to the next, or even 2 Earth years to the next two, Saturn is not going to move very far in the sky. So if Mars right now is near Saturn, then the last time Mars was in this location, it was also near Saturn. But, regardless, Nazon is yet again wrong on her dates.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps I’m picking on low-hanging fruit. But this really does bug me a fair bit. In a different way than all the 2012 doomsday-sayers and young-Earth creationists. Astrologers claim that what they are doing is science. They base what they do on the motions of the planets, sun, moon, stars, and sometimes asteroids. The very least they could do is to get those motions and positions correct!

And yet again, I’ll use the refrain: If Nazon’s easy-to-see astronomy claims of where objects are when are so demonstrably wrong (and other astrologers who may be wrong like her), why should ANYONE pay the $75 an e-mail or up to $330 an hour for one of her “readings?” Heck, send me an e-mail and I’ll at least tell you where stuff is in the sky when. And I won’t charge you nearly that much.

February 15, 2010

Planet X and 2012 and Astrology: Exploring the Claims of Astrologer Terry Nazon on 2012, Part 1


While I was supposed to be working today, I was looking at the upcoming Coast to Coast AM late-night George Noory -hosted radio show. Tonight, February 15, 2010, they’re having what has been termed an “Astrology Special” with three astrologers coming in. I went to each of their websites just to nose around, and I found a page on Terry Nazon’s site dedicated to “The Mayan Prophecy of 2012.”

I’m an astronomer. Astrology is to astronomy what alchemy is to chemistry (or, for those about to take the SATs: astrology:astronomy::alchemy:chemistry). And, I’ve written many, many posts on the non-event of Planet X and 2012 (Planet X, 2012, and Planet X and 2012 — yes, those are different). So, this particular woman has combined two things that I just couldn’t help myself to post a break-down.

To do this, I’m going to examine both her numbered claims (part 1 – long!) and then claims she makes in the expository text (part 2).

Note: Several times I link to a NASA website on eclipses in this post. Unfortunately, that server seems to be down as of the time I’m posting this. You can do a search on Google for it and find the cached version of the page in most cases, however.

Other Note: It appears as though Ms. Nazon was cancelled from the show before it went live on Feb. 15. I am not sure when this change happened, but it was no more than 2-3 days before the episode.

Numbered Claim 1

“On December 21, 2012 The Winter Solstice, the Earth and the Galactic Center align. The Galactic Center is also called the Milky Way. The Mayans called the Milky Way, The Sacred Tree, or the Great Mother. This alignment of the Earth and the Galactic Center only happens once every 26,000 years! The Galactic Center is at approximately 26°-27° Sagittarius.”

I’ve addressed this claim directly, twice, on my blog before both in my post “ Planet X and 2012: What The Sky Looks Like On December 21, 2012” and “ Planet X and 2012: The PseudoAstronomy (or Just Plain Wrong Astronomy) About a Galactic Alignment.”

In sum and substance, no, there is no alignment between Earth, the sun, and/or the galactic center in 2012, let alone on December 21, 2012. Now, there was an “alignment” between the sun and galactic equator on December 21, 1998. I personally don’t recall anything special then except maybe taking my last semester exam in 9th grade. For references on this, see the two posts above and/or any astronomy planetarium software.

As for where the galactic center is located on the sky, it is true that it is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. It is located at the celestial coordinates 17 h 45m 40s RA, -29° 00′ 28.00″ DEC. So while she’s right about Sagittarius, she’s wrong about the galactic center’s location, off in declination (latitude on the sky) by the width of at least four sun / full moon diameters.

Numbered Claim 2

“Uranus squares Pluto at 7° – 8° of cardinal signs. This is the waxing square of the cycle that started in the mid 1960s, with the conjunction of these two planets in mid Virgo. December 21st, 2012 A.D., represents an extremely close conjunction of the Winter Solstice Sun with the crossing point of the Galactic Equator (Equator of the Milky Way) and the Ecliptic (path of the Sun), what that ancient Maya recognized as the Sacred Tree, or the Great Mother. This is an event that has been coming to resonance very slowly over thousands and thousands of years. It will come to resolution at exactly 11:11 am GMT.”

I find this claim interesting. I really can’t say anything about “Uranus squaring Pluto” as that has nothing to do with astronomy, but I find it interesting in that this claim directly backtracks from the previous! She’s changed “Galactic Center” to “Galactic Equator,” which is actually finally correct (almost). The problem with this is that which I pointed out above, and I invite you to go to the links to my previous posts on the alleged alignment.

Numbered Claim 3

“March 16th 2012, A lunar occultation of Pluto occurs today. This is the first anywhere on Earth since January 19th 1935. They will occur every month now from today upto [sic] August 17th 2013.”

Now is as good a time as any to point out that I’m just copying and pasting from Ms. Nazon’s website. If there are spelling mistakes, I am indicating that with the [sic] as is standard practice to indicate it is not a transcription error on my part.

Anyway, I looked into this. I’m not sure what software she’s using, but I was using Starry Night Pro. I started out in my default location of Boulder, CO (USA) and didn’t see any occultation. I then went to France, Iran, a few places in Russia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, the UK, Benin, Egypt, Venezuela, China, Australia, Chile … the closest I saw any approach was about 15′ of Pluto to the moon. That means it misses it about a quarter of a lunar diameter, and that was from the Falkland Islands. Finally I tried the south pole, and pluto gets within 6′ of the moon (0.1°). Close, but no cigar.

As far as I can tell, this claim is simply false, unless someone can give me a different location where this happens. (Again, I did this via simulation in Starry Night Pro.)

Now, what’s cool is that after March, the occultations do actually start to take place as seen from Earth, about every 27 days or so after that. Those of us at my latitude in Boulder, CO won’t be able to see this until January 10, 2013, at about 6:30 PM, though at that time they’ll be about 11° away from the sun. And, the occultations will stop around the August 2013 timeframe for those of us in the higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere.

And then this did occur back in January 19, 1935, again from the South Pole, and it just missed occulting Pluto on February 15, 1935.

So while this claim is partly/mostly correct, I’m not sure what the significance is supposed to be. It’s not like it happens on December 21, 2012.

Numbered Claim 4

“May 11th 2012 Saturn conjunct Spica (2nd time) [sic]”

I’d like to see her work on this claim. I checked several locations around the globe for this date, and the closest Saturn gets to the star Spica is several degrees (around 4). With the full moon being 0.5° across, that’s 8 full moons away.

However, I spoke with a friend of mine who practices astrology (yes, I do have friends, and yes, some of them have beliefs outside of my own). According to her, astrologers consider anything within about 5° to be a “conjunction” which is “considered to be mutually enhancing.” So, under that definition, yes, this will be a conjunction.

However, even if it is true … so what? (a) This isn’t December 21, 2012, and (b) what does a conjunction between Saturn and a star as seen from Earth have to do with anything?

Numbered Claim 5

“May 20th 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse at zero degrees Gemini. Central eclipse 23:53 GMT. Eclipse visible from southern USA, central America, central equatorial south America and Africa.”

A solar eclipse is a “rare” and beautiful thing that I hope to observe in August 2017, when totality will be centered pretty much directly over my parents’ house. It’ll be a partial eclipse from Boulder, but it will be occurring right around sunset so I’m not actually sure if I’ll be able to see it (or if I’ll still be in Boulder at that time).

The only thing un-rare about an eclipse is that they generally happen twice a year. And an annular eclipse – where the moon doesn’t quite cover the entire solar disk so you have an “annulus” of sun around it – isn’t the neat kind where you actually get totality. You can go to NASA’s eclipse website to view the eclipses for many decades into the past and future, both solar and lunar.

So, yes, there will be an annular solar eclipse on May 20, 2012. This is not rare. And the time of greatest eclipse will occur at 23:53:53 GMT (so she’s a minute off, rounding, though that’s really nit-picking). And it will be visible from China, Japan, the Pacific, and western United States.

Otherwise, the where on the sky part of this eclipse is completely wrong. The sun and moon will lie within the constellation Taurus (the bull), with the sun at about 20° declination and about 4 hrs right ascension (see the diagram below from Starry Night Pro, location set to Boulder, CO). Far, far away from Gemini. In fact, it’s much closer to Aries than it is to Gemini. 0 RA is in the constellation Pisces … even farther from Gemini. I’m actually surprised that Ms. Nazon made a mistake this large unless she was using the wrong dates or just was making it up – about it being in Gemini. As for Gemini being at 0 RA, well, that just simply doesn’t happen and won’t for several thousand years.

Skychart on May 20, 2012 Showing Solar Eclipse

Skychart on May 20, 2012 Showing Solar Eclipse

Note on reading these images: First, you can click on any of the star chart images in this post for a much larger version. Second, a guide to reading these — Constellation names are in blue. Star names are in yellow. Solar system object names are in pale red. White outlines are constellation boundaries as defined by the International Astronomical Union nearly a century ago. Red grids are effectively the latitude/longitude system that we use in astronomy (declination (DEC) and right ascention (RA)). A green line is the line of the ecliptic – what the sun appears to trace out in the sky over the course of a year.

Numbered Claim 6

“June 4th 2012 Partial lunar eclipse at 15 degrees Sagittarius. Central eclipse 12:03 GMT [sic]”

We experience what are called “eclipse seasons” on Earth. This is when the nodes of when the moon crosses the celestial equator when it’s a new or full moon recur 1-2 times before they move away. In simpler terms, we only get an eclipse when the moon, Earth, and sun directly line up. Since the moon is on an inclined orbit, this only happens twice per orbit. And those locations (“nodes”) move around Earth. If we have a full moon when the moon is on a node, we get a lunar eclipse. If it’s a new moon, it’s a solar eclipse. And because it happens twice per orbit, then if you have one kind of eclipse, chances are very good that 2 weeks later, you’ll get the other kind.

That’s the case here, for June 4, 2012. And it will be a partial lunar eclipse – again, not the most interesting kind, and the time of greatest eclipse will be approximately 11:04:20 GMT (she was an hour off). But I’ll take this opportunity again to ask, “So what?”

The only thing wrong with this claim is that Ms. Nazon again gets the constellation wrong – the moon will be in the constellation Ophiuchus (which I think is the bane of astrologers since, because of precession, there are now 13 “sun signs,” but Western astrologers only recognize the original 12). The moon will be about 13° away from the edge of the constellation Sagittarius for this eclipse … that’s nearly 8% of the way across the visible sky at the time. Again, a fairly big miss for someone who studies the sky.

Skychart on June 04, 2012 Showing Lunar Eclipse

Skychart on June 04, 2012 Showing Lunar Eclipse

Numbered Claim 7

“June 6th 2012 Transit of Venus across the disc of the Sun.”

Now this is cool. Once every 122 years and then again 8 years later, the planet Venus transits across the disk of the sun as seen from Earth. Historically, this has been very important for astronomy because it was the only way to directly measure the size of the solar system and the distance between us and the sun. I invite you to read a bit more about it on Wikipedia if you’re interested.

Anyway, yes, this does happen, and will happen, though unfortunately it won’t be visible from most of the US as it happens from 22:09 June 5 through 4:49 June 6 (GMT). About the best place for this one will be Indonesia or Japan.

While this has historic significance for astronomy, though, I again fail to see the significance of it in foretelling, well, anything that is supposed to happen on December 21, 2012.

Numbered Claim 8

“June 11th 2012 Jupiter enters Gemini.”

If she’s right … So?

But yet again, Ms. Nizan is wrong. I’ll again direct you to any number of for-free or commercial planetarium sky programs and tell you to go to that date and look at where Gemini is and look at where Jupiter is. On June 11, 2012, Jupiter is clearly on the ARES side of Taurus, not anywhere near Gemini. Maybe she got her year wrong — Jupiter enters Gemini on June 27, 2013.

Skychart on June 11, 2012 Showing Jupiter's Location

Skychart on June 11, 2012 Showing Jupiter's Location

Also, Jupiter orbits the sun once every ~12 years or so. That means that about once a year, it moves into a new constellation. About once every 12 years, it repeats the cycle! Gasp!

Numbered Claim 9

“July 15th 2012 Lunar grazing occultation of Jupiter (visible from the UK with a clear horizon ) 02-00 [sic] GMT.”

This claim is true and pretty cool. The moon will occult Jupiter for several minutes at this time as seen from the UK. But it’s just as significant – and even more common – as the lunar occultation of the planet Saturn that was visible from the US and other parts of the world in 1997.

While in analyzing these claims so far I’ve concentrated on showing some of their flaws, I will yet again ask: So what? What does an apparent alignment from an insignificant planet floating in a vast universe have to do with anything?

Numbered Claim 10

“Aug 14th 2012 Mars and Saturn conjunct Spica [sic]”

Not sure what Ms. Nazon has against periods, but she leaves them out a lot in this list. Anyway, Ms. Nazon seems big on conjunctions with Spica. And as I stated for her 4th claim, this is another one that is simply not true. A conjunction is when things come together and appear to be in the same spot. Unless you’re using a very loose definition of the word – perhaps she meant “close conjunction” instead of “conjunction” – then this is again demonstrably false (just go to planetarium software and look!!).

Yes, they’re reasonably close, with about 3.5 full moons separating Mars from Spica, and 5.5 separating Mars from Saturn. I’m really not sure I’d call this a conjunction, especially if you’re trying to link it to some cosmic energy vortex being activated because these objects are supposed to meet. But, I suppose under the 5° idea that astrologers seem to use (based on my friend), the three will be in a “conjunction.”

Numbered Claim 11

“August 22nd 2012 The Moon, Mars, and Saturn are conjunct [sic] Spica.”

Moving the ol’ clock forward on Starry Night software and … Nope! For those familiar with photography, you could easily use a 100mm lens to photograph this close conjunction. You need something with wider than a 5° field of view, as Saturn from the moon is nearly 6° apart — even under the 5° rule we can’t really consider this to be a conjunction.

Now, granted, this would make a neat photograph. And if I remember, I’ll probably try to capture it. But in the grand scheme of things, this really is not a very close conjunction – definitely not a once-in-26,000-years event.

Numbered Claim 12

“October 5th 2012 Saturn enters Scorpio.”

Okay, I’m not sure what Ms. Nazon is using. But Saturn is still pretty much smack dab in the middle of Virgo in October 2012 (see image below). Unlike Jupiter, Saturn takes longer – about 30 years – to orbit the sun once. So, it will enter a new constellation about once every 2.5 years. And 30 years later it repeats. So, is there supposed to be some significance I’m not getting in it staying in Virgo on October 5, 2012 allegedly entering Scorpius?

Skychart on October 05, 2012 Showing Saturn's Location

Skychart on October 05, 2012 Showing Saturn's Location

Numbered Claim 13

“November 13th 2012 Total Solar Eclipse at 22 degrees Scorpio 22-12 GMT visible from north-eastern Australia.”

Let’s see … May + 6 months = November … we have another potential eclipse! Which is what Ms. Nazon is predicting for NE Australia. And, lo!, yes there is an eclipse on November 13, 2012, visible from northern Australia and the southern Pacific.

But in what seems to be a running theme, this takes place in the constellation Libra (the scales), and the declination is about -18°, not 22°. For those who don’t know, Libra is a full 3 constellations away from Sagittarius, over 11% of the visible sky away from Sagittarius. It hasn’t been since about the year 1400 B.C. that the sun was in Sagittarius on November 13 — assuming we use our calendar instead of what was in use at the time.

Numbered Claim 14

“November 14th 2012 The Moon occults Mercury (daylight occultation visible from the UK with a telescope) .”

Yep, the moon occults Mercury, visible from the UK, at about 10AM on November 14, 2012. And it does it again May 9, 2013. Mercury never strays too far from the ecliptic, so the moon has a reasonable chance of occulting it once a month. So again, this is not a rare occurrence, nor does it have any physical significance.

Numbered Claim 15

“November 28th 2012 Penumbral lunar eclipse 7 degrees Gemini. Central eclipse 15:33 GMT [sic]”

Yep, 2 weeks after a solar eclipse, we have the possibility of a lunar one. And not a very good one at that – the moon may appear to dim a little, but it’s unlikely that it will appear to go very red. That’s what a penumbral eclipse is versus an umbral – the good kind! And if Earth’s shadow could stretch farther into space, just a few hours later we would see a Jovian eclipse with Earth’s shadow turning Jupiter red!

Anyway, I’m getting kinda sick of saying it and hopefully I don’t have to post yet another screenshot for you to believe me, but she got the constellation wrong again. This happens in Taurus, not Gemini. And I’m not sure where she’s getting her coordinates from — she either needs a new calculator, better tables, or better software. The moon will be at about 4 hrs RA and +20° DEC … not 7° in Gemini. In fact, the farthest south that Gemini gets is just under 10°. Now, Gemini does cross through the 7th hour RA, but there are 24 hours of RA, not 360, so saying anything about it being 7° is either being completely oblivious about what RA means or making up numbers.

And she’s again an hour off, with the greatest eclipse time being 14:34:07 GMT. This eclipse will be visible in Europe, East Africa, Asia, Australia, the Pacific, and North America.

Numbered Claim 16

“Uranus will enter Aries in 2011. The last time Uranus transited Aries was in 1927-1935 which we all know as The Great Depression.”

Okay, for some reason this claim was bolded on her site, along with #17 and 18. Perhaps it’s because she actually ties these into past events. Let’s look …

Uranus has a longer year than Saturn, about 84 Earth years. When running open house observing nights on campus, we refer to it as the “once in a lifetime” planet because unless you have an unusually long lifespan, you will never see Uranus in the same location in a constellation (excluding retrograde motion, but that’s a different story). You will never see it in the same place in its orbit (that’s more precise).

So now let’s go through this without looking up to see if she has the constellation right. 1927 + 84 = 2011, so yes, wherever Uranus was in 1927, it will be returning there around 2011. So that would be a correct analysis.

Now, about depressions. For those who don’t know, one of my hobbies is coin collecting. As such, I’ve tracked US inflation rates throughout history and come up with some beautiful graphs. Suffice to say, the US has gone through several “great” depressions – present one excluded because only history will tell if it’s a “great” one. The first was during the Revolutionary War, when inflation skyrocketed. Second was around the War of 1812 – about 40 years later. Third was during the Civil War, when America experienced the largest inflation rates in its history as a country (excluding just after its founding) — that was 50 years later. And then the Great Depression – about 70 years later. If you want to play it forward, we experienced depression-class inflation rates again during WWII (15 years later) and again during the Korean and Vietnam Wars (30-40 years later).

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see an 84-year pattern there.

United States Inflation Rates, 1776-2008

United States Inflation Rates, 1776-2008

Oh, and now let’s see if it’s actually in Aries (looks at Starry Night Pro …) Nope. Uranus is smack-dab in the middle of Pisces. It enters Aries in late 2018. And what would it entering in 2011 have to do with 2012?

Numbered Claim 17

“Neptune will enter Pisces its own sign in 2011. The last time this occured [sic] was 1847-1862 where it last transited during the time of the French Revolution.”

Just because I’m already looking at Starry Night for Uranus and Aries, let’s take a look at Neptune. Neptune takes even longer in its orbit – about 164 years. And in very late 2011 it moves into Aquarius, and finally in December 2023, it will move into Pisces. So, I am honestly curious now – Ms. Nazon, what are you using to make these claims? Are you just making them up? Are you using software that doesn’t account or over-accounts for precession? What’s going on here?

Anyway, about revolutions. Yes, 1847+164 = 2011. Now, I’m not a historian, so I did a quick look-see on Wikipedia … The French Revolution was 1789-1799, while there was a less severe one in 1848. But revolutions take place all the time. The Cuban revolution of the 1960s. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in the 1970s. You could even say the Civil Rights in the 1960s was its own kind of political revolution. Let’s not forget the Communist Revolutions in the mid-1900s in China, Vietnam, and Korea. Or Germany in the 1930s, Italy in the 1930s, the Russian Revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century … need I go on?

This – like the Great Depression link to Uranus – is an obvious example of retrodiction and anomaly hunting. She’s looked at the last time Neptune was in that place in the sky (NOT PISCES) and found something that would’ve made front-page headlines while ignoring any other occurrence of an event of that type that has happened since.

Numbered Claim 18

“Pluto has entered Capricorn, well, the last time Pluto entered Capricorn was 1762-1777 the American Colonial Revolution.”

I’ve heard this from several astrologers on Coast to Coast over the last few years, that Pluto is entering a place in the sky that it hasn’t been since the American Revolution. That’s because Pluto’s year is about 248 Earth years, so it takes quite awhile. The “only” problem is that, yet again, Pluto won’t be in Capricorn until about mid-2024. It’s still in Sagittarius until then.

Numbered Claim 19

“Venus will make a rare planetary loop above the Orion star system, a rare planetary passage over the disk of the Sun on June 6,2012.”

Let’s take this in reverse-order since there are actually two things here. Venus’ year, being an inferior planet relative to Earth (meaning that it’s closer to the sun than Earth), is shorter than ours and once or twice a year it will pass close to the sun. Unless it passes directly in front of it, as is actually the case in 2012, it will appear to pass above or below the disk. And as I already discussed in Claim #7. Double-dipping isn’t allowed.

As for “rare planetary loop,” this happens about once every 20 months – hardly a once-in-26,000-years. When Venus reaches its greatest elongation from the sun (its farthest distance) when it’s an evening star, it will appear to reverse directions in the sky and instead of traveling West-to-East, it will go retrograde and travel East-to-West. So, from Earth’s point of view, it will look like it stops and reverses direction, I suppose appearing as a “loop” in the sky.

This happens when it’s in Taurus in May 2012 (above Orion, yes). It will happen in the constellation Libra in October 2010. It happened in March in 2009 in the constellation Pisces, above Cetus and below Andromeda and Pegasus. In December 2013 it will happen in Sagittarius, just next to Capricornus. And in August of 2015 it will happen through Leo. In fact, just a month before that – on July 1, 2015, Venus and Jupiter actually will have a very close conjunction, appearing less than 0.5° apart in the sky. Too bad it’s during the day, though you may be able to catch them pretty close together just after sunset.

Numbered Claim 20

“We will be in an 11 year Sun Spot Cycle that is known to make us less compliant and more reactive over the slightest provocation.”

Please show your work. And, by the way, we’re always in an ~11-year sunspot cycle.

Final Thoughts, Part 1

Okay, there are two real take-away points from this analysis of Terry Nazon’s justification for why 2012 is meaningful astrologically or that it’s going to lead to something big that the Mayans supposedly predicted.

First take-away point is that she’s quite sloppy. Well over half of the specific claims that she made for where objects would be relative to constellations are demonstrably false – just use any planetarium software you like and you’ll see this.

Second point is really the main debunking point of astrology – what does any apparent alignment of an object with another object from Earth’s fleeting vantage point at that moment have to do with anything?

Blog at WordPress.com.