Titanic’s Celestial Connections

Astronomy played supporting roles in the ill-fated ship's maiden voyage and in the blockbuster movie that followed.

<i>Titanic</i> and iceberg
"Iceberg, right ahead!" British maritime artist Simon Fisher portrays the night of April 14, 1912, moments before Titanic struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage.
Donald W. Olson
To the best of my knowledge, there was no staff astronomer aboard the RMS Titanic when it set out from Southampton, England, in 1912 on its first and only voyage. If there had been, I wonder if the course of its tragic history would have been any different?

I can only imagine the beauty of the night sky on April 14th as the ship steamed westward toward New York. The seas were dead calm and the sky alive with stars that night. As passenger Lawrence Beesley would later recount in The Loss of the SS Titanic, "The night was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen: the sky without a single cloud to mar the perfect brilliance of the stars..."

Notably, there was no Moon in the sky that night. The absence of its light, together with the calm sea, apparently made it impossible for the ship's lookouts to spot the approaching white hulk of an iceberg before Titanic sideswiped it at 11:40 p.m. Within three hours, the battered ship had cleaved in two and sunk, claiming the lives of some 1,500 passengers and crew.

Lunar double whammy
The Moon was full on January 4, 1912, which coincided with the Moon’s perigee and Earth’s perihelion. These combined effects boosted tides, which may have helped the Titanic iceberg drift into shipping lanes.
S&T: Leah Tiscione
We will never know the source of that particular berg, but in the spring of 1912 mariners were aware that a great many of them had worked their way into the North Atlantic's shipping lanes. In trying to reconstruct the accident's sequence of events, some experts later argued that a hot arctic summer in 1911, followed by an especially mild winter, had triggered higher rates of glacial creep and the calving of icebergs where they meet the sea in Greenland.

Another astronomical wrinkle is explored by Donald Olson and Russell Doescher of Texas State University, together with S&T senior contributing editor Roger Sinnott, in the magazine's April issue. They followed an astronomical lead first tossed out in 1995 by oceanographer Fergus Wood.

Grounded iceberg in Labrador
As icebergs travel southward from Greenland toward the North Atlantic, they can drift into shallow water and run aground along the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. This one eventually refloated during a spring tide and headed southward.
Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism
As Wood envisioned it, the iceberg formed a few months earlier on the west coast of Greenland, in or near Diskø Bay, due to extremely high tides. Those super-swells resulted from a rare convergence of astronomical factors: within a single 27-hour span on January 4th, Earth came its nearest to the Sun, the Moon was its nearest Earth, and the Moon was full.

But it's unlikely that the iceberg could have crossed more than 1,600 nautical miles (3,000 km) of ocean to the impact point in just three months. Olson, Doescher, and Sinnott solve that timetable by postulating that the iceberg had formed earlier and become grounded along the coast of Labrador or Newfoundland, only to be freed by the extreme (perigean) tides of early January. It's well worth reading their entire article, "Did the Moon Sink the Titanic?"

There's more!

When director James Cameron set out to capture the ship's voyage and dramatic sinking in his 1997 blockbuster film Titanic, he put a premium on getting all the details exactly right. So it came as a complete surprise to astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson that Cameron botched the scenes showing the night sky.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
During a 2009 panel discussion, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains his objections to the "stars" of the film Titanic.
St. Petersburg College
The movie shows its heroine, Rose (played by Kate Winslet), staring up at the sky as she floats on wood scraps after the ship's sinking. "There is only one sky she should have been looking at," Tyson snorts, "and it was the wrong sky!" Worse, he adds, the left half was a mirror reflection of the right half.

After seeing this astro-gaffe, Tyson (who's director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City) wrote a letter to Cameron, politely pointing out the error. Cameron never responded. Undeterred, Tyson raised the issued again when the two met at a NASA gathering five years later — and a third time over dinner in 2005. As Tyson tells it, Cameron finally retorted, "Well, last time I checked, Titanic has grossed $1.3 billion worldwide. Imagine how much more it would have grossed, had I gotten the sky correct."

<i>Titanic</i>'s starry sky
What stars would Titanic's survivors have seen overhead as they waited for help? You can find out using Sky & Telescope's Interactive Sky Chart. Click on the image to see the all-sky view.
Kelly Beatty
Yet just two months after getting his planisphere handed to him on a platter, Tyson got a call from the post-production team working on a special 10th-anniversary "director's cut" of the movie. Cameron wanted to fix the stars after all! So Tyson cranked out a plot of the sky as it would have appeared that night, using Starry Night software. Then, he adds, "I reached deep into my amateur astronomer roots" to adjust the scene as it truly would have appeared.

"I was a chihuahua nipping at his ankles for 10 years," Tyson tells me, but that persistence paid off. When the 3-D version of Titanic made its debut this week, viewers could see that Cameron had changed virtually nothing of the original — except the sky full of stars over Rose's head.

14 thoughts on “Titanic’s Celestial Connections

  1. G Boardman

    "Iceberg, right ahead!" British maritime artist Simon Fisher portrays the night of April 14, 2012, moments before Titanic struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage.
    Donald W. Olson

    Oh really, April 14, 2012? Ahem, did anybody proof read this?

    Hilarious!

  2. Frank ReedFrank Reed

    G Boardman wrote: "Oh really, April 14, 2012? Ahem, did anybody proof read this? Hilarious!". Wow, you’re easily amused! It’s a TRIVIAL typo which did not detract from the content of the article in any way. Happens to the best of us.

  3. Kelly BeattyKelly Beatty

    actually, it *is* amusing — as is the story of how that typo came to exist (a story for another time, perhaps). anyway, it’s also now fixed.

  4. Larry Toolwy

    Seeing the night watchman in the tower yelling into the phone "Oce bug. royt de4ad ahead," gives me the comic relief of thinking if he had said, "There’s an iceberg in front of us." they would have understood. Speak American!

    I read the ship’s rudder was too small to turn it in time, and changing the engins to full astern ruduced the rudder effect even more.

  5. Hussain Almousawi

    I am still puzzled on the connections of Titanic sink to the celestial. Ok never mind what if there was full knowledge of the celestial at 9112 and there where astronomers on board Titanic, What difference that would made. When you question::”did the moon sink Titanic?”..My question is on what bases this question was put? and where is the answer? Or is it just a question for further research?

    BUT MY MAIN QUESTION: have we finished from all human errors that have been committed before and through the Titanic sailing, and the shortage for its sailing preparations. Wouldn’t this first historical sailing of its kind with huge amount of people necessitate escorting? Where the safety measures on board and the sailors training and ship’s trial time sufficient? And the weather was it, taken into consideration?

  6. Dileep V. Sathe

    As per Prof. Don Olson, the supermoon on 4th January 1912 triggered the movement of iceberg which led to the Titanic accident on 14th April 1912. As per the story on TheDailyBite’s Blog, dated: 6th March 2012, the approach of Moon was closest since 0796 A.D. Can any one tell when the next approach of this nature will be? In other words, are we likely to observe an accident of the Titanic magnitude in the next 200 years or so?

  7. Susan Hutchings

    Finally, someone else notices weird sky things in movies & books. It’s like when the actors or book characters are sitting outside in the early evening in the summer looking up at the sky where Orion is shining. Not only is Orion NOT UP THERE in the summer night sky, but it would probably not even be dark yet.
    But I still think Pluto is a planet.

  8. Bruce

    Larry, thanks for the biggest laugh I’ve had all year. I almost hurt myself! "Speak American!" indeed. Should’ve been part of the terms of surrender in 1812.

  9. Bill R. Smith

    While celestial events may wellhave played a part in the Titanic tragedy – all be it small – in my opinion, the real cause was arrogance. Captain Smith folded under pressure to break the Atlantic crossing record. Bruce Ismay of White Star Lines kept urging Smith to proceed at near flank speed, even after the Titanic had received warnings of icebergs in the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic. In addition, as we know, there were not enough life boats. After all, this ship was "unsinkable". Poor quality of the rivets for the seams in the hull also played a part.

    Yes, lack of Moonlight was a factor. The bergs could not be seen easily and the mirror like calm seas did not allow for waves to break against the berg, which would have created a white line of foam.

    In my view, the main reasons for the loss of the Titanic was excessive pride, greed, and the fact that at that time in history, it was believed that humans could do anything and throw caution to the wind. This attitude has caused other disasters in the past, and will likely do so in the future.

  10. Bruce

    Susan, being keenly observant shows you have a sharp mind. And Pluto IS a planet! Down with astronomical dwarfism! Dedwarf the Sun!

  11. Jon SeamansJon Seamans

    Dileep, This month’s (April) S&T has a nice article about the "supermoon". It lists the next extreme lunar perigee will occur in 2257 (FYI,estimated to be ~4km closer). As far as a similar disaster occurring, that is not likely as iceberg detection technology and sea-travel protocols already significantly reduce the probability of such an event happening again, let alone 250 years from now. Because we are becoming complacent using critical location and guidance technology, I’d bet we’ll be more likely to have such a disaster occur as a result of an extreme solar storm disrupting electronic systems.

  12. Larry, Vancouver Island

    Hind sight is always 20/20 as was evident in the Apollo 13 experience and the space shuttle disasters. Titanic’s post mortem has been very useful in improving safety, construction standards and proving again, that we are not indestructible.

    As far as speaking "American", Give me a Break!!! It should have been Canadian. Simply said, "Iceberg ahead, eh"!!! After all, you lost the war of 1812 to us!!! Forgot that, eh???

  13. Frank ReedFrank Reed

    Well, somebody has to say it. I guess it will be me. This whole idea that extraordinary tides in January 1912 contributed in some way to the Titanic disaster by re-floating an unusual number of stranded icebergs IS TOTAL NONSENSE. The tidal driving force in January 2012 is only half the story. What really counts are the resonant and non-resonant responses of the oceans. That is, you have to look at the tidal harmonics for that region. The tides along the coast of southern and central Labrador are in fact quite moderate, and there was no amazing increase in tidal range in early 1912 as the article recently published by Sky & Telescope claims. Furthermore, spring tides there occur about thirty hours after New/Full Moon so the exact coincidence of perigee with the phase just doesn’t matter. The variation in the maximum astronomical high tides on the Labrador coast from one year to the next is on the order of a few centimeters which is far smaller than the normal meteorological variation. In short, the supposed coincidence of astronomical factors including the so-called "supermoon" effect or more properly the "perigean spring tide" effect would have been lost in the normal noise. Perigean spring tides are not rare. Perigean spring tides had nothing to do with the ice conditions that sank Titanic. Please, folks, demonstrate that Sky & Telescope has not sunk with all hands, and retract this article.

  14. jay ryan

    Hi Kelly, great article, thanks for the info. Cameron is not the only one to botch the astronomy, seems to be a Hollywood tradition.

    In the Cecil B.DeMille version of "The 10 Commandments," Cecil himself does a monologue at the very beginning where he boasts of consulting with rabbis and historians to get every detail right. Yet the plague of death is depicted as a green mist passing in front of a waning crescent Moon.

    Problem being, according to the Torah, Passover is timed with the first Full Moon of spring, and the waning crescent as depicted would have been off by about 1/3 of a lunar month. (No doubt that didn’t hurt DeMille’s profits either.)

    This detail is depicted correctly in "The Passion of Christ" which opens with a Full Moon, which actually would have been shining down on the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of Passover, when Jesus and his disciples were there. FWIW, jay

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