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By John Major Jenkins
It is important to define what the Galactic Alignment is in precise astronomical terms. (See the Glossary below for terms.)
The Galactic Alignment is the alignment of the December solstice sun with the Galactic equator. This alignment occurs as a result of the precession of the equinoxes.
Precession is caused by the earth wobbling very slowly on its axis and shifts the position of the equinoxes and solstices one degree every 71.5 years. Because the sun is one-half of a degree wide, it will take the December solstice sun 36 years to precess through the Galactic equator (see diagram below).
The precise alignment of the solstice point (the precise center-point of the body of the sun as viewed from earth) with the Galactic equator was calculated to occur in 1998 (Jean Meeus, Mathematical Astronomy Morsels, 1997).
Thus, the Galactic Alignment "zone" is 1998 +/- 18 years = 1980 - 2016. This is "era-2012."
This Galactic Alignment occurs only once every 26,000 years, and was what the ancient Maya were pointing to with the 2012 end-date of their Long Count calendar.
These are the astronomical facts of the matter. From a larger perspective, we can visualize the 2012 Galactic Alignment in the following way:
Position A is where the December solstice sun was in relation to the Milky Way some 3,000 years ago. Position B is 1,500 years ago. And position C is "era-2012", when the December solstice sun has converged, as a result of the precession of the equinoxes, with the exact center-line of the Milky Way (the Galactic equator). Notice that the place of alignment is where the 'nuclear bulge' of the Galactic Center is located.
A long awaiting digital portrayal of precession and galactic alignments is now available on Nick Fiorenza's web site.
Descriptions of the process are also there, but it should be noted that Nick describes what I refer to as "the solstice-galaxy alignment" with a preference for the equinox as the measuring reference. Thus, he speaks of the "Holy Cross" of the equinox axis and the Milky Way. The point is that "solstice-galaxy alignment" and "equinox-galaxy cross" refer to the same event.
It is my hope that the these definitions will help to standardize the terminology so we can clearly discuss the rare precessional alignment that culminates in era-2012.
The ecliptic: The path followed by the sun, moon, and planets. It is the plane of our solar system. The ecliptic encircles the earth and is divided into twelve constellations, or zodiac signs.
The Milky Way: The bright band of star that our solar system belongs to. It encircles the earth and is wider in the region of Sagittarius because that is where the 'nucelar bulge" of the Milky Way's center is located (our Milky Way is saucer shaped).
The Galactic equator: The precise mid-line running down the Milky Way. Analogous to the earth's equator, it divides the galaxy into two hemispheres, or lobes.
The Dark Rift in the Milky Way: A feature caused by interstellar dust that runs along the Milky Way from the Galactic Center northward past the constellation of Aquila.
The December solstice sun: The sun, on the December solstice. It is one-half of a degree wide.
The December solstice point: The precise midpoint of the sun, on the December solstice.
The Precession of the equinoxes: The earth wobbles very slowly on its axis and this causes the position of the equinox to shift backwards, or precess, through the signs of the ecliptic at the rate of one degree every 71.5 years. The full precessional wobble is complete in roughly 25,800 years.
The vernal equinox point is defined by the intersection of the ecliptic and the celestial equator.
The Celestial Equator: The earth's equator projected into the stars. It is the plane of the earth's rotation.
The Cross formed by the Milky Way and the ecliptic: Exactly as stated. There are two of these, one in early Sagittarius, the other in early Gemini. The former cross has the virtue of being located within the nuclear bulge of the Galactic Center.
The nuclear bulge / the Galactic Center: A bright and wide region of the Milky Way, visible to the naked eye and between Sagittarius and Scorpio. The more precise and abstract center-point of the nuclear bulge is the precise Galactic Center, located at about 6 degrees Sagittarius (sidereal) and 27 degrees in the tropical zodiac.
Additional Glossary of Mayan Calendar terms
We can have a more general discussion of galactic alignments in history if we consider that the solstice axis aligns with the galactic equator every half precession cycle. Likewise, the equinox axis aligns with the galactic equator every half precession cycle. Thus, galactic alignments, more generally speaking, occur in era 2012 (1980 - 2016) and every quarter precession cycle before and after era 2012.In terms of Mayan astronomy and mythology, the Dark Rift feature (which the Maya called the Black Road or Xibalba be) lies along the galactic equator (the Milky Way) in the place where the December solstice sun will be in 2012. (More precisely, the December solstice sun will reach the southern terminus of the Dark Rift, where it touches the ecliptic in Sagittarius.) Thus, in terms of Mayan mythology, we can also describe the Galactic Alignment of era-2012 as the alignment of the December solstice sun and the Dark Rift. This entire region is targeted by the cross formed by the Milky Way and the ecliptic between Sagittarius and Scorpio. This Cross was also recognized by the Maya, and was called the Crossroads or Sacred Tree. This entire region is embraced by what astronomers call the 'nuclear bulge' of the Galactic Center—the center of our Milky Way galaxy. As any amateur astronomer or naked-eye star gazer knows, this nuclear bulge is recognizable without the aid of radio telescopes. It is wider and brighter than other parts of the Milky Way. So, in a general sense we can also say that the alignment in 2012 is an alignment between the December solstice sun and the Galactic Center. However, since the nuclear bulge is quite large, this definition is not as precise as saying "the alignment of the December solstice sun with the Galactic equator", which occurs in the range 1980 - 2016. This is the alignment zone I refer to with the term "era-2012."