Science-based Q&A

Browse the questions and answers below to deepen your knowledge of astronomy as a science. Learn the facts about the universe’s fascinating array of celestial bodies, from planets to stars to black holes. Discover the difference (and evidence for) dark energy and dark matter. And learn about worlds closer to home such as Venus and Saturn.

The Q&As presented here probe a variety of topics. When will Earth see its last total solar eclipse? How many stars are in the Milky Way galaxy? How do you calculate the density of a black hole? Read on to discover the answers, and ask your own astronomy questions by sending a note to info@skyandtelescope.com.

Why do comets have tails?

Comets develop tails as they approach perihelion—the place in their orbits when they are closest to the sun. The sun’s heat causes some of the material in a comet to vaporize, which in turn releases dust particles that were trapped in the ice.

How big is the Sun?

The Sun is more than 330,000 times as massive than the Earth. It has a diameter of nearly 1.4 million kilometers (865,000 miles), and its volume could enclose about 1.3 million Earths.

What is a meteor shower?

Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a stream of meteoric material. The brief streaks of luminescence we call meteors are caused by meteoroids burning up as they pass through the atmosphere.

Astrology vs Astronomy: What’s the Difference?

The practices of astrology and astronomy have common roots, but they have evolved into two separate fields. Astronomy studies positions, motions, and properties of celestial objects. Astrology attempts to study how those positions, motions, and properties affect people and events on Earth.

The 12 Planets of Our Solar System

Will all eight planets ever line up on the same side of the Sun?

Will there ever be a moment when all eight major planets are in a straight line on the same side of the Sun? Jean Meeus addresses this in Mathematical Astronomy Morsels (Willmann-Bell, 1997). He points out that you have to start by defining the question precisely. Let’s reduce the problem to two dimensions and ask…

Andromeda Galaxy

Is it true that Andromeda Galaxy is moving toward us?

Is it true that the Andromeda Galaxy is blueshifted and moving toward us? How can this happen in an expanding universe? The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is indeed approaching us, by about 300 kilometers (190 miles) per second measured with respect to the Sun. If you subtract the Sun’s orbital motion around our galaxy (about 230…

How many stars are in the Milky Way?

What is the best educated guess for the number of stars in the Milky Way? I’ve seen figures ranging from “some 20 billion” to “just under 600 billion.” The first seems too low, whereas the latter too high. The short answer is, nobody knows. But your reasoning is sound: 20 billion is too low, and…

Totality

When will the last total solar eclipse occur?

With the Moon slowly receding from Earth, there will come a time when it no longer has sufficient angular size to cover the Sun completely. When will the last total solar eclipse occur? When the Moon’s at its closest and biggest and it can no longer cover the Sun at its farthest and smallest, total…

How large an asteroid could a person jump off?

How large an asteroid could a person jump off? This interesting question goes back to 1952 or even earlier. It turns out that the asteroid must be no bigger than 3.9 v(ρe / ρ) kilometers in diameter, where ρ is the asteroid’s density and ρe is that of Earth in the same units (S&T: July…

Spokes in Saturn's rings

What happened to the “spokes” in Saturn’s rings?

In 1979 the Voyager spacecraft revealed “spokes” in Saturn’s rings. Yet recent images from Cassini have shown no spokes. What happened to them? Those spokes have kept planetary scientists scratching their heads for decades. It’s thought that the spokes are radial fingers of dark, extremely fine dust particles that become electrostatically charged by pulses of…