How different would the night sky have looked in 40,000 B.C.?
What was the most striking difference in the summer night sky in Central Europe in around 40,000 B.C. compared to today's? Was there a noticable precessional shift or any other phenomena around that time?
You are right that one thing that would make a difference is the precessional motion of the Earth which has a period of 26,000 years. The Earth spins on its axis, a bit like a spinning top. If you watch the motion of a spinning top you may notice that the axis that it spins along moves slowly round in its own little circle. This is called precession and is completely analogous to the precession of the Earth. The effect to star gazers is that the position of the north celestial pole wanders in a big circle across the sky (with a period of 26,000 years this is of course not noticeable in any one person's life time). Since 40,000 BC (which is 42,000 years ago) it's gone around about one and a half times! 26,000 years ago (24,000 BC) the skies would have looked the same as they do now (ignoring the proper motions of stars which I'll mention below). 16,000 years before that, the skies would be about half way through the precessional cycle so the north celestial pole would be close to Vega. What this means is that the stars would appear to rotate around Vega during the course of the night (as opposed to going round Polaris like they do now). This also has an effect on which constellation the Sun is in at a given time of year and so which constellations can be seen at night at the different times of year.
Proper motions of stars (as mentioned above) would also cause a change. The stars with the largest known proper motion is Barnard's star which goes 10.29 arcseconds a year. So it would have gone about 120 degrees across the sky in 42,000 years and would be in a completely different area of the sky. A more typical proper motion is about 0.1 arcsecs/year, which would move the typical star about 1 degree in 42,000 years - that's still 2 times the size of the full moon so would make a fairly noticeable change to the familiar constellations.
Get More 'Curious?' with Our New PODCAST:
- Podcast? Subscribe? Tell me about the Ask an Astronomer Podcast
- Subscribe to our Podcast | Listen to our current Episode
- Cool! But I can't now. Send me a quick reminder now for later.
- What month was it when Odysseus saw Orion in 1000BC?
- Why do constellations look the same after several years even though all the stars are moving?
How to ask a question:
If you have a follow-up question concerning the above subject, submit it here. If you have a question about another area of astronomy, find the topic you're interested in from the archive on our site menu, or go here for help.Table 'curious.Referrers' doesn't existTable 'curious.Referrers' doesn't exist
This page has been accessed 26283 times since December 16, 2002.
Last modified: September 5, 2003 5:16:09 PM
Ask an Astronomer is hosted by the Astronomy Department at Cornell University and is produced with PHP and MySQL.
Warning: Your browser is misbehaving! This page might look ugly. (Details)