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Precession of the Equinoxes

Precession of the Equinoxes

In astronomy, axial precession is a gravity-induced, slow and continuous change in the orientation of an astronomical body’s rotational axis. In particular, it refers to the gradual shift in the orientation of Earth’s axis of rotation, which, like a wobbling top, traces out a pair of cones joined at their apices in a cycle of approximately 26,000 years (called a Great or Platonic Year in astrology). The term “precession” typically refers only to this largest secular motion; other changes in the alignment of Earth’s axis – nutation and polar motion – are much smaller in magnitude.

Earth’s precession was historically called precession of the equinoxes because the equinoxes moved westward along the ecliptic relative to the fixed stars, opposite to the motion of the Sun along the ecliptic. This term is still used in non-technical discussions, that is, when detailed mathematics are absent. Historically, Hipparchus is credited with discovering precession of the equinoxes. The exact dates of his life are not known, but astronomical observations attributed to him by Ptolemy date from 147 BC to 127 BC.

With improvements in the ability to calculate the gravitational force between planets during the first half of the 19th century, it was recognized that the ecliptic itself moved slightly, which was named planetary precession as early as 1863, while the dominant component was named lunisolar precession. continue…

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