Why do stars twinkle? (Beginner)

The songline goes "Twinkle twinkle little star". What is the cause of the "twinkling" of stars? Does light from planets "twinkle" as does light from stars?

A young person of my acquaintance asked me this question, and I didn't have a good answer.

Stars twinkle because of turbulence in the atmosphere of the Earth. As the atmosphere churns, the light from the star is refracted in different directions. This causes the star's image to change slightly in brightness and position, hence "twinkle." This is one of the reasons the Hubble telescope is so successful: in space, there is no atmosphere to make the stars twinkle, allowing a much better image to be obtained.

Planets do not twinkle the way stars do. In fact, this is a good way of figuring out if a particular object you see in the sky is a planet or a star. The reason is that stars are so far away that they are essentially points of light on the sky, while planets actually have finite size. The size of a planet on the sky in a sense "averages out" the turbulent effects of the atmosphere, presenting a relatively stable image to the eye.

 

This page updated on June 27, 2015

About the Author

Dave Kornreich

Dave was the founder of Ask an Astronomer. He got his PhD from Cornell in 2001 and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Physical Science at Humboldt State University in California. There he runs his own version of Ask the Astronomer. He also helps us out with the odd cosmology question.

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