For centuries, sailors, explorers and Boy Scouts have used the North Star as their compass in the night sky. Lined up right over the North Pole, Polaris, the name we have given to it, never moves, but holds a steady position always pointing due north. Even a compass is not as accurate, especially if you are in a northern region of our planet.
But will the North Star always be there guiding us to our destination? You do not have to worry about it now unless you are planning on living a long time, but the North Star will be retiring one of these nights. In its place, a new star will assume its duties and in fact, this new star will be much brighter and easier to spot in the night sky.
Why would a star leave its prestigious and honored position as the one star that never moves and always shows us the way? Probably not because it calculated its Social Security payments and decided it had accrued enough benefits to live out its remaining days in relative comfort. Stars, after all, live a long, long time.
Have you ever watched a top spinning rapidly on the floor and noticed that at the same time it is slowly wobbling? Hold on tight now because I do not want you to start feeling dizzy, but we are wobbling too. If you take a quick look outside, hopefully, everything will look normal. Actually it is a pretty slow wobble at least in our time frame, about 26,000 years for just one. I think you would fall asleep watching that top.
Twelve-thousand years from now we will have a brand new North Star when the North Pole lines up on another star and you can go out tonight and see it. Look in the west for a large triangle of three bright stars. The westernmost and brightest of the three is Vega, our once and future North Star. If you do not believe me, check it out 12,000 years from now.
Let me tell you more about that wobble. Watch that top spinning around on the floor. After a while that wobble gets more and more accentuated, gyrating about wildly. That would happen to the earth also, and it would be disastrous for life on our little planet. Imagine a time when the North Pole was pointing directly at the sun for a million years or so. That would mean the entire northern hemisphere would be blasted continuously by the sun and boiling hot. The southern hemisphere, by contrast, would be in perpetual darkness and freezing cold turning into a gigantic block of ice. Then imagine the earth flipping and the reverse happening.
What we would have is climate change from hell and this time it would not be our fault. It would be almost impossible for any life except its most simple versions to survive in conditions like that. So what is preventing this doomsday scenario from happening to us? The moon, our very special moon. We have the largest moon in our solar system in comparison to its host planet and our big moon acts like a gyroscope on the earth keeping us steady and providing a hospitable place for us to live.
All lined up
Every now and then things sometimes seem to line up perfectly in our lives and we can breathe a sigh of relief. That too happens in our solar system every once in a while. Early in the morning on Nov. 11 the sun, the earth and the planet Mercury will all line up just so and if you are into it, you will be able to see the tiny round black ball of Mercury crawl slowly across the face of the sun.
The event is called a transit of Mercury and it only happens about 13 times in a century.
You will need a telescope and filters to block the extreme brightness of the sun. Never, ever look directly at the sun, especially with binoculars or a telescope. Severe eye damage will be the inevitable result of your folly. This event will be something for geeks like myself, and if you think you fall into that category, my advice is to find someone with a telescope and experience observing the sun.
It will be an early morning affair and the sun will rise with the transit already in progress, but you will have a couple of hours to watch little Mercury slowly make its way towards the edge of our home star.