Why do stars twinkle?

Why do stars twinkle?

Tom Callen, Cosmonova.

Tom Callen / Cosmonova

Though it wouldn’t work so well in the nursery rhyme, a star’s twinkling actually has a technical term: astronomical scintillation, an effect due to our planet’s atmosphere.

While some stars do physically change in brightness over time, they typically do so on long timescales — amateur astronomers monitor these changes sometimes over hours, but more often over days, weeks, or years.

The more rapid changes of scintillation, on the other hand, come about long after the light has left the star. Light waves traveling through Earth’s atmosphere bend as they pass through pockets of air at different temperatures. Because the light waves come from a single point, this effect can make the star’s brightness and/or position appear to change.

Why Don't Planets Twinkle Too?

Unlike stars, planets don't twinkle. Stars are so distant that they appear as pinpoints of light in the night sky, even when viewed through a telescope. Because all the light is coming from a single point, its path is highly susceptible to atmospheric interference.

The much closer planets appear instead as tiny disks in the sky (a distinction more easily discerned with a telescope than with the naked eye). Their apparent sizes are usually larger than the pockets of air that would distort their light, so the effects of scintillation are negligible.

Star wheels will help you find your way among the twinkling constellations, and you can trace the appearance of the planets along the ecliptic with a Skygazer's Almanac.