A beautiful image is making the rounds on social networks and news websites. It shows three bright planets, Mercury, Venus and Saturn with each poised directly over one of the three pyramids at Giza Egypt. According to the story, this conjunction will occur on December 3, 2012 for the first time in 2737 years. Skeptics such as Phil Plait, “The Bad Astronomer,” point out that neither the story nor the simulated photograph are entirely accurate.
So what is the problem?
The stock photo used for the simulation was taken from the wrong side. Both Phil Plait’s astronomy program and fourmilab’s yoursky online planetarium show that the planets will actually appear in the Southeastern sky aligned in a steep angle, nearly 60 degrees to the horizontal… roughly the same angle as the sides of the pyramids, not level with their tops! Light pollution from Cairo and the illuminated pyramids will probably turn the sky yellow-orange instead of blue as in the photo and wash out the light from Saturn. But that brings up another nice coincidence. Mercury and Venus are very bright, Saturn is dimmer. Look at the three Giza pyramids, the first two are large, the third is smaller. Their size echos the brightness of the three planets.
Look at the top photo of the summer Milky Way over the pyramids and you might wonder whether any other alignments have occurred in the past. The architects of the Giza pyramids did have a much closer relationship with the night sky than we do, so it isn’t surprising that some astronomical alignments were planned. This was also true for numerous stone circles, passage tombs, cave drawings, cairns and other structures around the world. Sirius, the bright “dog star” in the constellation Canis Major is the brightest star in the night sky and was especially important to the ancient Egyptians. This is because when Sirius made its first appearance before sunrise, it marked the beginning of the Nile river flood season. The hieroglyphic symbol for Sirius includes a pyramid. Some have pointed out that these three Giza pyramids seem to mirror the three bright stars in Orion’s belt as they do in the image on the left.
The End of the World as we know it?
This reminded me of a rather odd ‘star party.’ My astrologically-minded neighbor opened her screen porch to invite aliens, and me into her home on November 11, 1991. “V” and her friends sipped wine, listened to Kenny-G and burned cinnamon-vanilla scented candles to celebrate events that would occur on November 11, 2011. On that day aliens were supposed to arrive from the three bright stars in Orion’s belt, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka and bring some kind of spacey rapture to Earth. I went home, set the clock on my computer to 11/11/11 and used the Sky Travel astronomy program to show me… nothing. Twenty years later that fateful date came and went without so much as a whimper. Some now claim that the Giza alignment is a warning that the Mayan calendar will roll past a long count digit and go through the equivalent of a Y2K bug 18 days later. I’ll take this warning with a grain of salt. And I will not let myself be terribly disappointed if the world continues past December 21, 2012.
Pyramid misaligned? Remember, location location location!
It is doubtful that the architects had any 21st century planetary alignments in mind when the pyramids were built. First of all, like a wobbly toy top, the Earth has gone through about 4000 years of precession since the construction of the pyramids. Any alignments Cheops had planned for 4000 years in his future would have been thrown off by the wobbly-earth equivalent of leap-second bugs. Secondly, the ecliptic plane of the planets is at a steep angle to the horizon for places near the equator. At roughly 30 degrees latitude, these pyramids would nearly have to be stacked on top of each other to make for a nice planetary alignment. Move the pyramids a few thousand miles north, say to Tromsø Norway at about 70 degrees north latitude and you’ll have an alignment that nearly resembles the Facebook photograph:
But then, why go to all that trouble? Leave the pyramids in Egypt and enjoy a rare and beautiful near-miss alignment between nature and architecture.