The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Be a considerate neighbor: Shield all your outside lights downward (or turn them off completely) and enjoy the beautiful, starry night sky.

January 2006 night sky—North is not always north

The North Star, also called the Pole Star or Polaris, is the star that the earth's axis points toward in the northern sky. Throughout the ages people have been fascinated by this star and the fact that it doesn't seem to move in the sky. For Ncenturies the North Star has been used as a navigation aid. It has also been used to measure astronomical latitude, since we map latitudes to the equivalent sky positions: the North Pole equates to 90 degrees north latitude on Earth, as does its projection into the sky.

Today the Earth's axis points within one degree of Polaris, the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor (also called the Little Dipper). Polaris appears to be in a fixed position in the sky throughout the year. All other stars and constellations seem to revolve around the North Star.

Over the course of time, the North Star changes because the direction of the earth's axis wobbles like a spinning top. Over a period of twenty-six thousand years, different stars are our pole star. Right now Polaris is within one degree of true north, but five thousand years ago, Thuban, the brightest star in the constellation Draco, was the North Star. Five thousand years from now, the North Star will be Alpha Cephei, the brightest star in the constellation Cepheus. Seven thousand years after that, it will be Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra.

While the precession of the Earth's axis takes place over thousands of years, magnetic north is now moving much faster. Earth's magnetic north pole is where the magnetic field lines are oriented vertically and plunge into the surface of the earth. It is also at the north pointer of a compass point.

The true north pole, which is located on the Earth's axis of rotation, and the magnetic north pole are not in the same location. For more than four hundred years, the Earth's magnetic north pole was roughly in the same position. The most recent survey by the Canadian Government, in 2001, showed the pole was located at 81.3 degrees north, 110.8 degrees west. This is west of Greenland and north of the Canadian landmass.

But now the magnetic pole is on the move; it has drifted nearly 680 miles into the Arctic Ocean in the last one hundred years. And its speed has increased considerably during the past twenty-five years. In 2005, the estimated location was 82.7 degrees north, 114.4 degrees west. If the pole follows its present course, it will pass north of Alaska and arrive in Siberia in a half century. If that happens, Alaska and Northern Canada may lose the beautiful northern lights, which are caused by the interaction of the magnetic pole and the solar wind. Soon, the northern lights may be visible in southerly parts of Siberia and Europe.

Geologists have evidence to show that the Earth's magnetic field has reversed directions several times. The Earth last went through a magnetic reversal some 780,000 years ago. These episodic reversals, in which south becomes north and vice versa, take thousands of years and are the result of complex changes in the Earth's core. While there is some evidence to convince some scientists to think that this movement may be the start of a pole reversal, most researchers think that this is all just part of the normal wanderings of the pole between Canada and Siberia.

• Mercury may be visible low in the eastern sky the first few days of the month just before sunrise.
• Venus disappears into the Sun most of the month, but will reemerge as the morning star late in the month. Look east before sunrise.
• Earth is closest to the sun in its elliptical orbit on January 4.
• Mars is shining brightly almost directly overhead this month at about 7:30 p.m. Look for the Moon to pair with Mars on January 8.
• Jupiter rises after midnight. On January 23, the Moon will be beside Jupiter.
• Saturn rises in the night sky at about 7:00 p.m. this month, and will reach opposition on January 27. It is overhead at about 1:00 a.m. at mid-month. The Moon will be next to Saturn on January 14.
• The Moon is full on January 14 and new on January 29.
• The Quadrantids meteor shower should peak on January 3. Look at about 2:30 a.m. for the best viewing. Expect to see fifteen to forty-five shooting stars per hour.

Seen those flashing white lights in the western sky?
You may have noticed that the daytime white strobes remained on all night for about two weeks during December, causing considerable light pollution. A Signpost reader called FAA Field Office inspector John Wagner, 764-1210, and four days later the red lights were back on and the white strobes were off at night. Doug Felix, of the FAA Southwest Office in Texas, called our reader to say that he had talked to the "sponsor" of the tower, and that the situation was solved. Felix wasn’t sure if complaints from Placitas played a part in the resolution of the issue.

The sponsor of the tower is Roberts Broadcasting, out of St. Louis. The owner, Chris Meisch, (314) 283-6070, said that the backup system to put on the red lights had failed.

According to the FAA, even if the red-light backup fails, by law, a third backup must meet FAA regulations: a 200-candela-intensity white light is supposed to come on. The two-hundred-thousand-candela light visible during the day should not stay on.

The tower is 1,049 feet high and represents a hazard to all aircraft if regulations are not followed. For more information, go to, get into Advisory Circulars 70/70460-1 and look for Guidelines, highlighted in blue, and find the charter concerning dual-intensity lights systems for towers above five hundred feet.

Suggestions and comments are always welcome at


Top of Page





Front Page   Up Front  Animal News   Around Town   Classifieds   Calendar  Community Profile  Community Center  Crime Scene   Eco-Beat   Featured Artist  Fire and Rescue  The Gauntlet   Community Links  Night Skies   Movie Reviews  My Wife and Times  Sandoval Arts   Schoolbag   Time Off   Back Issues   Ad Rates   Contact Us