precession of the equinoxes, westward motion of the equinoxes along the ecliptic. This motion was first noted by Hipparchus c.120 B.C. The precession is due to the gravitational attraction of the moon and sun on the equatorial bulge of the earth, which causes the earth's axis to describe a cone in somewhat the same fashion as a spinning top. As a result, the celestial equator (see equatorial coordinate system), which lies in the plane of the earth's equator, moves on the celestial sphere, while the ecliptic, which lies in the plane of the earth's orbit around the sun, is not affected by this motion. The equinoxes, which lie at the intersections of the celestial equator and the ecliptic, thus move on the celestial sphere. Similarly, the celestial poles move in circles on the celestial sphere, so that there is a continual change in the star at or near one of these poles (see Polaris). After a period of about 26,000 years the equinoxes and poles lie once again at nearly the same points on the celestial sphere. Because the gravitational effects of the sun and moon are not always the same, there is some wobble in the motion of the earth's axis; this wobble, called nutation, causes the celestial poles to move, not in perfect circles, but in a series of S-shaped curves with a period of 18.6 years. There is some further precession caused by the gravitational influences of the other planets; this precession affects the earth's orbit around the sun and thus causes a shift of the ecliptic on the celestial sphere. The precession of the earth's orbital plane is sometimes called planetary precession, and that of the earth's equatorial plane (caused by the sun and moon) is called luni-solar precession; the combined effect of the moon, the sun, and the planets is called general precession. Planetary precession is much less than luni-solar precession. The precession of the equinoxes was first explained by Isaac Newton in 1687.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.