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| | Space on May 19, 2014

Why do stars twinkle?

Seen from Earth, stars twinkle while planets shine steadily. Why?

Stars twinkle. Planets shine steadily. Why?

Stars twinkle (scintillate) because they’re so far away from Earth that, even through large telescopes, they appear only as pinpoints. And it’s easy for Earth’s atmosphere to disturb the pinpoint light of a star. Thus the stars twinkle. They can even appear to move around a bit in the sky, as shown in the video below.

As a star’s light pierces our atmosphere, each single stream of starlight is forced by the atmosphere to zig and zag this way and that. . . . and so stars appear to twinkle. On the other hand, planets don’t twinkle (usually) simply because they’re closer to Earth. You’d know they’re closer if you looked through a telescope. Through telescopes, planets don’t look like pinpoints. Instead, they look like tiny disks. And while the light from one edge of a planet’s disk might be forced to “zig” by Earth’s atmosphere, light from the opposite edge of the disk might “zag” in an opposite way. The zigs and zags cancel each other out . . . and that’s why planets appear to shine steadily.

It’s pretty tough to figure out which objects are stars and which are planets just by looking for the twinklers vs the non-twinklers. But if you can recognize a planet in some other way, you might notice the steadiness of its light by contrasting it to a nearby star. Hank Green of SciShow has more, in the video below.

By the way, if you could see stars and planets from outer space, both would shine steadily. There’d be no atmosphere to disturb the steady streaming of their light.

What’s more – while it’s true that, for the most part, planets don’t twinkle – you might see them twinkling a little if you spot them low in the sky. That’s because, in the direction of any horizon, you’re looking through more atmosphere than when you look overhead. Even planets can’t withstand too much atmosphere, because it’s the atmosphere that makes them twinkle!

Bright stars close to the horizon flicker wildly, as the Earth’s atmosphere breaks up the starlight into a multitude of color.

Bottom line: Stars twinkle because, after traveling undisturbed through light-years of space, Earth’s atmosphere finally disturbs starlight just before it reaches your eye. Planets don’t twinkle because they are closer, and thus – while stars appear as pinpoints, even through large telescopes – planets are essentially small disks in our sky and therefore less subject to having their light disturbed by Earth’s atmosphere.