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44 Common Misconceptions About Astronomy

(Inspired by the legendary Nails song 88 lines about 44 women)


Many people love astronomy it is the sexy science and learn about it from TV, popular books, etc. In spite of
this, there is a lot of misunderstanding going on. If you see something on this list and think Hey, thats what I
thought!, you are not alone. There are many more than 44 misconceptions Neil Comens in his book Heavenly
Errors identifies over 1600 (!), some of which can be found below. Ive made this list with only 44 items so its a
proper homage. They arent listed in any particular orderso enjoy!
Important! Please note that the misconception is in the title line of each item, followed by the facts.

1). Whither seasons? Seasons are caused by Earth changing its distance from the Sun as it orbits
the Sun.
It is true that Earth changes its distance from the Sun over the course of a year, but the change is about 3%. Its
pretty clear that the temperature changes on Earth from season to season (in many places) much more than 3%. Also,
most people are vaguely aware that the Southern Hemisphere has different seasons from the Northern Hemisphere,
they have winter when we have summer. If thats true, how can it be connected to the distance between the Earth
and Sun? If distance to the Sun played a major role in the seasons, then all Earth should have the same seasons at the
same time.
So what causes the seasons? Ah that would be the tilt of Earth. As we spin, we have a tilt (from the Suns point
of view) of about 23. This means that sometimes North Earth is tilted toward the Sun and sometimes tilted away
(and vice versa for South Earth). If youre wondering why that matters, consider this: When the Sun is higher in our
sky, the light it shines is more concentrated think how sunlight around sunset doesnt warm you much compared to
sunlight at noontime. Also, when the Sun is higher in the sky, it stays up longer because it appears to follow a longer
path (Earth is really doing the moving here) and takes longer to go from one end of that path (sunrise) to the other
(sunset).

2). Shooting deathstars: If stars are so enormous in size, then why dont shooting stars destroy
Earth?
Because shooting stars arent really stars. Theyre bits of debris that usually vaporize in Earths
atmosphere. Bigger bits might make it to the ground and become meteorites. Real big bits (10 km across or more)
do things like take out the dinosaurs and cause mass-extinctions. There have been five of those in the last half-billion
years.

3). Sunpower: The Sun is on fire, or burning.


The Sun couldnt last as long as it has (its 4.5 billion years old) from any chemical reaction that could be giving it
energy. The Sun is actually fusing hydrogen atoms into helium, giving it energy that will last for about another 4
billion years from now (when the hydrogen at the Suns core will run out). This is a nuclear fusion reaction and gives
off much more energy than any chemical reaction. Ironically, the same people who think nuclear is bad, solar is
good seem unaware that the Sun is the largest nuclear reactor around.

4). Dark side of the Moon: The Moon has a dark side that is in eternal darkness.
The Moon is lit up about half the time and in darkness about half the time, just like any other moon, planet or piece
of debris in our Solar System. No body in the Solar System has a large part of itself in permanent darkness. When
we see the phases of the Moon change, we are watching the changing day on the Moon. If the face of the moon
changes its lighting over the course of a month, then how can half of the Moon be in eternal darkness? Now there are
small parts of the Moon near its south and north poles where sunlight never reaches into some craters, but thats not
the same thing, is it?
Now if youre wondering if a planet could have a permanently dark side, then read the next one

5). Far Side = Dark Side: The Moons dark side is the side we can never see.
We only see one face of the Moon. This is because the Moon spins in a way that it takes the same amount of time
to spin around once as the Moon takes to move (revolve) around the Earth. In a way, the Moons day is the same
as its year so we only see the side of the Moon that faces us. No matter where on Earth you are, the same face of
the Moon stares down at us. This is called the near side. If you want to see the far side of the Moon, you have to go
there: the first humans to see it with their eyes were the astronauts of Apollo 8. The far side gets lit by the Sun the
same as the near side, just at different times. During New Moon, the far side is completely lit up and the near side is
in darkness.
Now if the Moon keeps the same face pointed toward Earth (this is also true of many moons of Jupiter and Saturn),
then shouldnt it be possible for a planet to always keep one face toward the Sun thus making the far side of this
planet the dark side? Yes, its possible. The only planet that might do this is Mercury, and astronomers used to
think this happened there. But its doesnt, because of the nature of Mercurys orbit around the Sun. Still, it could be
happening with some distant world orbiting a far star.

6). Asteroids everywhere: Flying through an asteroid field is fast and dangerous.
Space is mostly empty. Things in it are far apart because if they werent, over the eons things would
collide. Planets (and moons) are here today after surviving for billions of years. You dont survive that long if you
are too close to your neighbors. The asteroids are spaced out at distances far larger than the distance between the
Earth and Moon (400,000 km). If you were heading right toward an asteroid, you would likely have days if not
weeks to fix the problem. Again, space is mostly empty. If you found yourself one day on a ship heading toward the
Sun near the speed of light, you would have almost eight minutes to change your course. No Nintendo reflexes
required. Do asteroids collide? Sure, but its rare as they are very far apart on average.

7). Planets close enough to touch: Movies show three planets hanging in the sky of an alien world.
This is a problem because large things in space are moving, and fast. Planets too close together would eventually
collide and this would lower the real estate values. Every once in a while, someone Photoshops an image of Mars to
make it appear huge in the sky. In truth, Mars is one of the most disappointing things to see through your
neighborhood telescope because it is so far away (see #13). It takes about six months for a space probe to reach Mars
from Earth even at the enormous speeds of space probes.

8). Neighboring stars: Getting from one star system to another only takes a few days.
As seductive as the idea of faster-than-light travel is, theres no evidence that its possible. When I say that, I dont
mean that theres some widget we need to invent and then its all good. I mean not possible. If we could find a way
to take shortcuts through space (wormholes, hyperspace, etc.) that would be cool too, but the jurys out on whether
thats possible. This means the stars may be beyond our practical reach, unless a human culture emerges that plans
far into the future.
Stars are millions of times further away than even the most distant planet in our Solar System. The space between
stars is so huge compared to their sizes that when entire galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars collide, only a few
stars actually physically collide. A few, out of hundreds of billions. This enormous void takes tens of thousands of
years for our fastest space probes to reach only the nearest star.
About one-third of all stars come in sets (binaries or multiples). Even for multiple stars, the spaces between them
are large or else they would be at risk of colliding. As an example, the star Sirius (in Canis Major) is actually two
stars that orbit each other. They are as far apart from each other as the Sun and Uranus are. Other multiple stars have
still greater distances between them, such as Rigel(in Orion).

9). Ocean tides: Only the Moon causes tides. Nothing else is involved.
Not quite. If the moon were destroyed tomorrow (like in the skit from the cult classic show Mr. Show with Bob
and David), there would still be tides in the oceans of Earth. They wouldnt be as strong, but they would
exist. Hows that? Because tides are also caused by the Sun. The Sun may be far away compared to the Moon, but
its a lot more massive.

Tides are complicated because of this. Sometimes the Moon and Sun work together to make tides higher or lower
than normal, and sometimes they work against each other making tides less extreme. Tides have confused people
for thousands of years, so if they confuse you, youre not alone. Even today, how tides work is one of the hardest
concepts to explain without using math. So please forgive my passing on giving a full explanation here and now.

10). No gravity on the Moon: Because gravity is only on Earth.


Most people would not agree with the second part of the above, yet they sometimes believe the first part. If you
were on a very small body like a tiny comet or asteroid, the gravity would be so low that you could jump off into
orbit. Yet even these small bodies have gravity. The Moon is much bigger than any piece of debris, and so it has
significant gravity. Its just less than Earths gravity. Astronauts on the Moon couldnt fly off into space without a
giant rocket firing underneath them. Mars has even more gravity than the Moon, and Venus still more. Gravity is a
truly universal force and everything has some, even you and I.

11). The North Star: Its the brightest star in the sky.
Many people are taught this in school, but not by astronomers. A clear night can quickly settle this. At that time,
go outside. Look up in the sky toward the north (if youre not sure what direction this is, map your house on Google,
or watch the sunset North is to the right of it). If you see stars in the northern sky, one of them is likely the North
Star its true name is Polaris (in Ursa Minor). Now, turn around and look to the southern sky. Do you see anything
brighter than the stuff in the northern sky? Odds are you will.
In the days pre-GPS, Polaris was important for navigation because of its location in the sky, not its brightness. It is
very close to the North Celestial Pole (NCP) , or the north pole of the sky. All the sky turns around that point (or its
equivalent in the southern sky the South Celestial Pole). Since the NCP is pretty important in finding your way,
Polaris is important by association.

12). Fiery comets: They burn when near the Sun.


Comet do change in appearance spectacularly as they approach the Sun. But theyre just melting, not
burning. Once the comet moves far from the Sun, it stops melting and becomes an undistinguished lump of weird
ices (including the type of ice we all know and love). Thats assuming that the comet doesnt hit the Sun about two
comets a month die that way.

13). Seeing Mars through a telescope: It should look big as life.


Its sad that most people never look through a telescope. This is a shame, for whether you live in Chicago or
Xian, somebody near you has a telescope and would like you to look through it. If you live in Sacramento and want
to look through a telescope, look here. Many things look good through a telescope (although its best in dark skies),
things such as the Orion Nebula, Saturn, the Ring Nebula, the globular cluster M13 and so on. One object that almost
always disappoints, however, is Mars. This is because Mars is very small and usually far away. Saturn looks larger
than Mars through a telescope because although its even further from us than Mars, its really, really big and
reflective.
Even on those occasions when Mars is kind of close to us, its hard to see things on Mars. Consider that one
hundred years ago, some observers thought canal networks built by advanced peaceful Martians crisscrossed
Mars. Thats how bad the view of Mars is under the best of circumstances. It took sending robot probes to Mars to
give us our first good views of Mars.

14). Moon phases: Theyre caused by the shadow of Earth.


When part of the Moon is in darkness, thats just because that part is out of view of the Sun and so that part is
having its night. The Earth is only half-lit by the Sun at any time, why should the Moon be different? The Moon
does take much longer to spin around once than Earth, and that is what we see when watch the phases over the course
of a month which is how long the Moons day is (and its year, see #5).
The shadow of Earth does cross the Moon during a lunar eclipse, but this can only happen during a full moon
when the Earth can get in the way between the Sun and Moon. It also only happens at most, a couple times a year.

15). Astrology and Astronomy: Theyre basically the same thing.


No. To a math phobic person, astrology might seem like a science because it uses extensive math to calculate
things like planet positions and hour angles. Numerology does as well, yet its certainly not a science. Astronomy,
on the other hand is a science not because of its use of math, but because it creates testable ideas about the
Universe. Astronomers then go out and test those ideas. Some turn out to be based in reality, but many more do
not. In science, ideas that dont correspond to what we see as reality are junked. Some think this is small minded but
if theres anything to the idea, at some point in the future as our knowledge expands it will return in one form or
another to make its presence known. Some ideas however, have stayed in the junk pile for centuries. Astrology is
one such idea.
When people test an idea, have it fail, and then continue to make excuses that allow the idea to go on, thats not
science. When people avoid testing an idea because they dont want to risk it being wrong, thats also not
science. Thats faith. While theres nothing wrong with faith per se, it isnt science and shouldnt be claimed as
science.
Astrology has been tested extensively in the 20th century and has failed again and again and again. Astrologers
continue to excuse these huge failures but then as mentioned above, that shows that they dont do science. It makes
more sense to think of Astrology as a very old religion that requires math skills if you practice it as opposed to just
believing in it which requires no math. For more information about astrology from an astronomers point of view, go
here.

16). Colors of stars: All stars look white.


This idea is more common in the Eastern U.S. than the Western. This is partly because out west (or in any dry
climate) most people see colors in stars. But whether you live in Boston or Santa Barbara, if you view a star through
a telescope you will see color. Some stars like Betelgeuse (in Orion) have a clearly orange color. Other stars, like
Vega (in Lyra) or Sirius (in Canis Major) have a harsh blue-white color to them. So whats going on?
It has to do with human eyes. Our eyes have two types of cells that absorb light, one sees color and the other can
see in very faint light. In a dark room or under a dark sky, your color cells dont have enough light to work with and
they are off. The cells that can see faint light are working, but they cant see color. This is why colors disappear in
the dark.
For very bright stars or planets, the color seeing cells in our eyes do have enough light to work with and this lets us
perceive color. Mars looks red compared to Jupiter for example, but it is a subtle difference.

17). Black holes destroy everything: Any nearby star or planet is history.
Its true that black holes have gravity, because everything does. And its true that black holes have much more
gravity than most stars. But they are not gravitational vacuum cleaners that suck in everything around them. Like
any star, things can orbit them. If the orbiting thing is far enough away (about as far as Jupiter is from the Sun), it
can have a stable orbit that lasts for a very long time. The only danger near black holes occurs if there is a disk of
crap around the black hole. This disk has stuff that is slowly falling into the black hole. An orbiting planet plowing
through the stuff in a disk would slow down and later become part of the disk (after being shredded like pasta) and
fall into the black hole with all the other stuff. Other than that, its a perfectly safe neighborhood.
If the black hole has no such disk, then it could have planets or another star stably orbiting it until the end of the
Universe. Black holes are like most dangerous things in the Universe dont live right on top of it and youre safe.

18). Drifting continents: Californias gonna fall off into the Pacific.
Earth is a dynamic planet (planets are astronomy) that has a number of plates in its crust. These plates move
around in a process called Plate Tectonics. Many people think that when plates move, holes in the crust open up and
swallow people. It doesnt work that way. Plates move very slowly at about the rate your fingernails grow and
although they hit each other like bumper cars and get pushed up and down, the changes are very slow. A plate
sinking into the Earth like the mythical Atlantis cant happen within human lifetimes. California is not going to

sink into the ocean. In addition, the plate boundary going through California is a sliding boundary, not one where the
plates are being pushed together or pulled apart.
Over the billions of years we know plate tectonics has been operating on Earth, continental plates have always
been taller than ocean plates. They stay taller, too. The basic continental plates have been around a long time,
although they move and change their shape over the eons: continental plates dont fall into oceans.

19). Eternal stars: Stars never die.


Stars are born and if you look at the Orion Nebula (the fuzzy thing in the sword of Orion, below Orions Belt) you
can see an area where stars are forming today. Stars are stars because they fuse hydrogen in their cores into helium
(see #3, above). This gives stars the energy they need to fight against the force of gravity, which keeps stars from
becoming one-shot fusion bombs.
The day finally comes when they run out of hydrogen in their cores (which is where its needed). Stars then start
fusing helium to keep going. At this point they are large and cooler than they were Red Giants and such and
already dying. Stars like the Sun will end when they run out of helium in their cores and become dead stars, white
dwarves in the case of the Sun.
More massive stars will fuse elements beyond helium carbon, oxygen, neon, magnesium and silicon. Once big
stars fuse iron, its game over as fusing iron gives no energy and actually takes energy away from the star. Its
somewhat like hanging on the edge of a cliff by grabbing a branch and then discovering that the branch is actually a
lit rocket thats pointing down. Massive stars collapse within seconds after iron fusion starts then they explode as
supernovas. The dead star then becomes either a neutron star or black hole (see #17).
Although supernovas are rare in our part of the galaxy (there hasnt been a good one in over 400 years!), many are
seen every year in other galaxies. Like the mythical swan song, the explosion of light that is a supernova is the death
flash of a massive star.
We see much evidence of white dwarves, neutron stars and black holes, so we know there are dead stars. Like
humans stars are born, live, then die.

20). Empty space: Theres nothing out there between the stars.
This is the exact opposite of #6, #7, and #8 above, in thinking that space is totally empty. By our standards on
Earth thats certainly true, but space is insanely big. For centuries, astronomers thought that if there was any gas or
dust in space it was few and far between. Because of this, they misunderstood how much stuff is between us and the
center of our Galaxy among other things.
With the 20th century and radio astronomy, the amount of stuff between the stars became hard to miss. Its
everywhere which is good as new stars form out of it. The problem comes when we think: Gee, its just a few
atoms for every cubic centimeter, so its too spread out to matter. Space has many, many cubic centimeters and over
great distances the amount of stuff adds up to equal the mass of thousands of stars!
Theres an entire branch of astronomy that studies this Interstellar Medium (ISM), because it plays a vital role in
the formation and life cycle of stars (see #19). We now have much more respect for clouds of crap than we used to.
When you see a nebula, the density of it is very low, but the volume of the space it occupies is enormous
thousands to millions of cubic light years!

21). A young Universe: The Universe is only a few thousand years old.
As mentioned above (see #15), people that persist in making excuses to maintain ideas that have failed testing are
not doing science. There are those who claim evidence to support a young Universe (and therefore a young
Earth). The problem with all this claimed evidence is that it doesnt stand up to even basic investigation. These
people often quote scientists to support their claims. The problem is, either the work quoted was done long ago
(when we thought different), or information is quoted out of context (so are some scientists), or its a (usually not
honest) misunderstanding of something in physics or astronomy. Since almost all people pushing this idea have a

flamingly obvious agenda, this claim is not taken seriously by scientists. Is this close-minded? No more so than
dismissing claims by some people still made today that Earth is actually flat. Some ideas dont reflect reality no
matter how much some may wish.
So what about the evidence that the Universe is ancient? Just sampling some of the massive scientific work, lets
start with the most abstract and move toward more concrete things. Based on the expansion of the Universe, you can
make a crude guess as to when it all started based on the speed at which it now expands. This assumes that the
expansion is constant, which it probably isnt, but I did say crude guess. From this, the Universe is between 10
billion and 20 billion years old.
Next, we can see the echo of the Big Bang in the Cosmic Background Radiation which is a kind of glowing
leftover from that unimaginably violent event. Recent examinations of this glow tell us that the Universe is about
13.7 billion years old, assuming that the models used in these studies are correct. The point is, it doesnt disagree
with the earlier value. If we found stars that are older than the Universe, then theres a problem with the model.
We have a good understanding of how stars work, how long they live and when they will die (see #19). We can
build star models from this to estimate star ages. All around us in the Galaxy are many stars of ages from the newly
born to the dying (or even dead). The measurable features that we look for in stars of certain ages agree with the
predictions of our star models. From this, we know that the Sun is about 4.6 billion years old and the oldest stars in
the Galaxy are about 13 billion years old. So far, so goodas the ages dont contradict each other and they are both
younger than the oldest age of the Universe.
Meteorites can be dated radiometrically just like Earth rocks, and the oldest ones found so far (including rocks
brought back from the Moon) are about 4.5 billion years old. So the Solar System isnt older than the Sun, which
agrees again. Although we cant find rocks on Earth older than about 3.8 billion years because of Earths active
geology, no Earth, Mars or Moon rock has been found that is older than the Sun.
The point of all this is that the Universe, Sun, Moon and the planet beneath your feet are billions of years old. So
its an ancient Universe for such a young species as we to live in. Perhaps there are species out there who have been
around since the formation of the Sun. Im sure they have some stories!

22). Planets are basically the same: Jupiters just a giant version of Earth.
Few people think that each planet is alike, but some folks think that the basic stuff planets are made out of is the
same. But giant planets are different in quality as well as quantity. Small planets and moons can be made of rock
and/or ice depending on where they formed. Worlds distant from the Sun are more ice than rock because at very cold
temperatures, ice is common and very strong. Worlds close to the Sun cant be made of ice, so they are mostly rock
and/or metal.
Giant planets, however, are more like stars than rocky worlds. They are mostly made of hydrogen and helium and
have no solid surfaces in fact they may not have anything solid in them at all. Its thought that giant planets can
only form far from their progenitor stars, yet so far most planets found around other stars are gas giants very close to
their stars. Its a puzzle, but maybe planets move a lot more during their lives than we thought they did.
Recently, two planets have been discovered around the star Gliese 581 that may be rocky worlds bigger than
Earth. Such worlds are called super-Earths. Some believe the next big paradigm shift will come when we discover
new worlds that resemble Earth. Perhaps.

23). The polymorphous Zodiac: The planets travel through only 12 constellations
Constellations are arbitrary patterns humans read into the stars we see in the sky. Most of the constellations used
in astronomy are from the Middle East by way of Greece and Rome. Other cultures of course, have different
constellations. The Sun, Moon and planets travel through a specific band in the sky called the Zodiac. The planets
and the Sun travel pretty close to a line in the middle of the Zodiac called the ecliptic, although the Moons path
wanders further. The classical zodiac has twelve constellations. This isnt a mystery, as the year has twelve months
for the same reason its how many times the Moon goes around the Earth in a year (give or take). With twelve
constellations, the Sun is in a different one each month. It doesnt work well, because the number of months in a year
doesnt divide evenly and this fact drove ancient skywatchers nuts and leaving leftover days in their calendars.

There are 88 constellations and actually thirteen of them are on the ecliptic. The 13th one is Ophiuchus. If we
allow for the tilt of the Moons orbit, there are about twenty zodiacal constellations. Some constellations that can
host the Moon (and some planets) but arent thought of as part of the Zodiac include Auriga, Orion and Crater.
So how many constellations are on the Zodiac? Depends on what sky object you care about. The Sun has thirteen
along its path, the Moon has about twenty. If this seems quite arbitrary, it is. Remember that all constellations are
random patterns invented by humans, which is why theyre not imbued with a deeper significance. Those who
believe astrology is real think otherwise but see #15 for more about that.

24). All stars are ours: Stars shine by reflected light from the Sun.
Planets do shine from reflected sunlight. Stars, however, make their own light through nuclear fusion (see #3 and
#19). The Sun is a star too, so it does the same thing. When you look up at the stars, remember that each one you see
is a giant nuclear fusion reactor. Some, maybe most of them have planets planets that shine with borrowed light.

25). Lunar phase names: A first quarter moon is 25% lit up.
Some names stick even when they make no sense. Lunar phases have two points named quarters: First Quarter
and Last (or Third) Quarter. Its a source of huge confusion that when the Moon is in a quarter phase its half lit by
the Sun. The problem is that the word quarter doesnt refer to the illumination of the Moon, it refers to which of four
main stages the lunar cycle is in (hence quarters). Each month has about four weeks because they are stand-ins for
the phases of the moon. There are four quarters in the total lunar cycle, so each week represents one quarter of the
cycle. In order, they are:
New Moon

First Quarter

Full Moon

Last (or Third) Quarter

New Moon (start of a new cycle)

The phase of the Moon where its more than half lit (from our point of view) is called gibbous.

26). Hair of the comet: The tails of comets always flow behind them
Comets are beautiful mostly because of their tails. Bright comets show two tails, one of dust peeling off the
melting dirty snowball that is the heart of any comet. and one of plasma being vented by the comets heart. The
plasma starts out as gas and is turned into lighted plasma (like in a fluorescent light) by the Sun and the conditions in
space around the comet. The dust tail usually looks yellowish and the plasma tail usually looks bluish. The tails only
exist when the comet is close enough to the Sun to melt the comets heart and release the dust and gas/plasma.
A strange thing is that comet tails, being creatures of the Sun, are controlled by the Sun. They always point away
from the Sun. Always. This gets weird, because when the comet starts moving away from the Sun and back to its
winter home the tails end up in front of the comet. A comet literally chases its own tails on its way back into the
outer dark.

27). Galactic gulfs: Galaxies are too far away to be easily seen.
Galaxies are very far away, even the closest large one is over two million light years away. Its easy to think that
they are very hard to see. The main problem with seeing galaxies isnt their distance, its that too many people have
no access to a dark sky. They are faint, but some can be seen by the eye alone, if you have a dark sky. Even a small
telescope can reveal basic structure in galaxies like the Whirlpool Galaxy.
The nearest large galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy is clearly visible as a fuzzy patch to the eye as long as you are
looking in a dark sky. The true tragedy of astronomy in the 20th century is how much has been lost to light pollution
across Earth. Dark skies are becoming as rare as your favorite cute endangered mammal. Ironically, light pollution
is the most easily fixed of all pollution. By using light fixtures that cost no more yet direct the light down instead of
into space, tens of billions of dollars can be saved in energy costs alone. The best part is we get our skies back. The
International Dark Sky Association raises awareness of this lesser evil pollution and their website is here.

28). Free in orbit: Satellites arent affected by Earths gravity.


Things that orbit the Earth (or Moon, or anything) are very much affected by the gravity of what they are
orbiting. Gravity is actually what makes them orbit. When you are in orbit, you are basically aiming for the ground
and constantly missing (how the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy defines flying). In orbit you have enormous
horizontal speed. The ground below curves beneath you faster than you can fall to hit it, so you never catch up. If
there were no gravity at all in space, once a probe got there, it would move away from its planet of origin at a
constant speed in a straight line. It wouldnt come back and it wouldnt be in orbit.
The reason there seems to be no gravity in the orbiting International Space Station is that you, it, your stuff, and
everything else around you are falling at the same rate. You feel weightless because you are falling (and you feel it,
constantly). If you jumped off a cliff, you would also feel weightless until you hit the ground. The difference is that
things in orbit never hit the ground unless something gets in their way.

29). Under a yellow sun: The Sun is a yellow star.


Many people think the Sun is yellow in color. This is an idea found everywhere from computer space games to
comic books (Superman gets his powers partly from our yellow sun). The problem is defining the Suns color. If
you take a prism (or diffraction grating), you can split sunlight into all the colors of the rainbow theyre all there.
So why is the Sun thought to be yellow? Sane people dont look directly at the Sun when it is high in the sky for
good reason. But people often see the Sun when it is near the horizon which is when it can look red, orange, or
yellow depending on the conditions. For the record, its never safe to look directly at the Sun without protection

regardless of where it is in the sky. In New Mexico for example, the setting Sun is yellow, not red. Since most folks
get that the red color of the Sun is from it being low on the horizon, its not a long jump to the idea that its normal
color is yellow.
So what color is the Sun? On a sunny winter day, go outside and look at any snow thats around. Snow is an
excellent reflector of light and faithfully reflects visible colors. Most people will agree that snow looks white under
these conditions, so the Sun is a white star.
Theres one more catch, though. If you look at all the colors of light from the Sun, theyre not equally strong this
is true of all stars. From carefully comparing the different color brightnesses, we see that the Sun gives off more
green light than any other visible color. So the Sun could be called a green star.
So which is it? To our eyes, the Sun is white. To the instruments of an outside (or alien) observer, the Sun is
green. So objectively, the Sun is green but we see it as white. That says more about our eyes than the Sun, but thats
another story (see #16).

30). Bright Moon, still shining: The Moon is really reflective.


Theres no doubt that the full Moon is bright. This is because it reflects light from the Sun. If the Moon were as
reflective as a mirror, then a full Moon would be like having another Sun in the sky at night. Clearly, its not that
bright, so the Moon is not as reflective as a mirror. How shiny is the Moon?
Not very, it turns out. The Moon reflects about 12% of the light from the Sun. Thats it. Its about as shiny as a
battleship-gray rock, which is what it is. Even the Earth reflects more light (39%). Moons in the outer Solar System
are mostly made of ice and some of them are very reflective, though not all of them because ice in space darkens over
time. The winner is Saturns moon Enceladus, which reflects 99% of the sunlight that falls on it back into space.

31). Theres no Earth like my Earth: All planets are unique, especially Earth.
Earth is different from any other known planet, but that doesnt mean there isnt any planet out there thats similar
to it. Mars is the world closest to Earth (from an is-there-life? point of view) weve found so far, but few would be
surprised if we found Mars-like worlds circling distant stars. Around other stars, we havent found planets that are
twins of Earth yet, but theres no reason to think theyre not out there.
In truth, Earth has many similarities to Mars and Venus as they do to each other. Earth also has unusual qualities
too like its freakishly large moon. Science throughout its history has taught from the time of Copernicus that
anytime you claim you live in a special place in time or space, youre likely wrong. The Copernican Principle states
that We dont live in a particularly special time or place in the Universe. In five hundred years, this principle has
worked well.
For a fair comparison, we can look at stars far more stars have been cataloged than planets. The Sun is a
particular type of star (G2 V, if you care). Our Galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars and about 7% of them are
similar to the Sun. Thats billions of stars. Of that lot, some are more like the Sun and fewer yet are basically
identical to the Sun. This means that there millions of stars in the Galaxy that are identical to the Sun. Why should it
be any different for Earth?

32). Is that all there is? Visible light is the only light.
The idea of invisible light sounds contradictory, but think about it: you can feel heat which is a form of infrared
light. You can also feel the aftereffects of ultraviolet light via a sunburn. These are forms of light you cant see, but
you can feel (either immediately or later). The amount of light in the Universe that we cant see dwarfs the tiny range
of colors that we do see.
The types of light that humans cant see also include radio (which is light, not sound), x-rays, gamma rays, and
microwaves (a type of radio light). These types of light can be detected, but not with human eyes. Many wonder if
any aliens out there can see this other light with whatever organ they have thats equivalent to our eyes. Who
knows? X-rays and gamma rays are dangerous or outright lethal (sorry to any Incredible Hulk fans), so its unlikely
an alien species would be able to see them, but radio, infrared and ultraviolet are quite possible.

33). Run for your lives! Its an eclipse! Looking at any eclipse is dangerous.
There are two types of eclipse: lunar and solar. All lunar eclipses are always safe to look at. No one ever went
blind staring at the Moon. On the other hand, most solar eclipses have an element of danger in them. Partial solar
eclipses (where the Sun isnt ever totally covered) are the most dangerous, and you should never observe them
without proper protection. Total solar eclipses are safe to look at when the Sun is completely eclipsed. This only
lasts a few minutes, but during that time viewing the totally eclipsed Sun is safe and glorious to see. Total solar
eclipses are one of those rare things in life that everyone should make an effort to try and see.
Partial solar eclipses get really dangerous when the Sun is more than 95% covered by the Moon. The reason is that
you get tempted to look at the Sun by thinking: Well, most of it is covered up. Bad idea! If ANY part of the Sun is
stared at, it can cause permanent eye damage or blindness. Even 1% of the disk of the uncovered Sun can do this,
because the Sun has about a constant brightness across itself if the whole Sun can blind you, then any part of it no
matter how small can do it as well. So protect yourself with true solar filters, available from many dealers.
If you want to see the effects of a 90% (or more) partial solar eclipse, then just look around. Things will be
dimmer about what it looks like when wearing sunglasses. Pay close attention to the shadows of nearby objects
they will get very weird.

34). Weighty matters: Heavier things fall faster.


This idea is as old as Aristotle. If you take two different weights and drop them off a tower, you might think that
the heavier one will reach the ground first. Aristotle did. But then, no one actually tested this idea until
Galileo. When Galileo tried it out, he discovered that the two weights (as long as they were both heavy so air
resistance isnt a player) hit the ground at the same time. Its kinda amazing that no one in Aristotles time bothered
with this simple experiment and its a great example of why science is so powerful.
If you try this with a steel hammer and a feather, they dont hit the ground at the same time. This is because air
resistance affects the feather much more than the steel hammer. So what if you tried this on the Moon, where there is
basically no air? Been there, done that. Check out the result here. To date, this is the most expensive science
demonstration ever done!

35). Crystal clear skies: A clear sky is always a good sky for astronomers.
If the sky is cloudy or in some way not transparent, this is clearly bad (sorry). But if the sky is totally clear, it may
not be good for observing because of the turbulence in the atmosphere. Air is always moving different speeds at
different altitudes and any light from stars, planets, etc. must travel through that shimmering mass of air. This is why
stars twinkle and partly why they always appear to be disks in a telescope though they should appear as points of
light. If the air is particularly unsettled, then things seen through a telescope will be blurry (especially planets) and
stars will appear to twinkle. Brighter stars (like Sirius) will even appear to scintillate or pulsate. This is still true
even if the sky is clear.
Astronomers describe the sky using two scales: the first is transparency and is concerned only with the skys
clarity no clouds, particles, haze, etc. The second is seeing, which involves the steadiness of the air. A great night
has high values of both seeing and transparency.

36). Hell on Earth: Its possible for humans to turn Earth into Venus.
The Earth is getting warmer with time. Much of this is due to human activity because the amount of carbon
dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere is tiny. Thats why its a problem because the normal amount of CO2 is so small,
its possible for our puny contributions to have an effect.
Some environmentalists have carried their argument to this: If we burn all of our carbon energy sources, enough
CO2 will be released to make a Runaway Greenhouse Effect like the one that keeps Venus hot enough to melt
lead. Cant happen simply because there isnt enough CO2 to generate a runaway greenhouse. Venus has an
atmosphere 100 times thicker than ours and its almost all CO2. Add to that the fact that the Earth naturally removes
CO2 through the formation of carbonate rocks and its clear that CO2 cant build up to the levels needed for a
runaway greenhouse.

Anyone reading the last paragraph might wonder why theres concern about global warming if theres a natural
way for the Earth to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The problem is that it works over hundreds of thousands of
years and Earth is warming over centuries. So, theres no easy answer to Earths coming climate change.
Ironically, as the Sun ages it will give off more energy. All the planets will warm over time until one day when the
Earth gets hot enough to go runaway greenhouse. This is billions of years in the future (which is about when the
Social Security funding problem will be solved) and will happen whether humans are around then or not. The point
is: it wont be caused by us.

37). Heavenly motions: Planets orbit in circles around the Sun.


The ancient Greeks thought that things on Earth only moved in straight lines (apparently, they never noticed that
thrown discuses in the ancient Olympics follow curved paths.). They also thought that circular motions were found
only in the perfect heavens. This assumption survived for thousands of years through models of the Solar System
developed by the Romans, early Muslims, Europeans, etc. Even Copernicus held onto this idea though it raised
problems with his Sun-centered model of the Solar System.
The first person (we know of) who thought differently was Johannes Kepler. After many years of making models
using the infamous Tycho Brahes data, he figured out that planet orbits werent quite circles, but ellipses. Some
planets have orbits that are only slightly elliptical, like Venus. Other planets orbits are more elliptical, such as Mars.
This business about orbits being ellipses applies to moons orbiting planets and stars orbiting each other. Kepler
figured out something big and universal.

38). Mercury rising: Mercury is always hot.


Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, so it should be hot. It is, but it spins, so it has a day side and a night side
like any planet. This means Mercury cools off at night, like Earth or the Moon.
Whats interesting about Mercury is how cold it can get. Since a Mercury day is about 59 Earth days, night lasts
awhile. The coldest it can get on Mercury is about 20 degrees above the temperature where the air youre breathing
right now would form liquid puddles at your feet. Thats far colder than it ever gets on Earth (or even Mars).
Not every planet cools off at night Venus stays hot all the time everywhere. This is why Venus is actually the
hottest planet even though it is further from the Sun than Mercury. The reason Venus stays so hot is due to its thick
atmosphere of mostly CO2. This gives it a Runaway Greenhouse Effect (see #36).

39). The lesser light: The Moon can only be seen during the night.
Most people dont look up in the sky unless theres a reason to. This is a major reason for most UFO reports
most people reporting them have minimal or no sky familiarity. During the day when the Sun is out it makes less
sense to take time out of your busy day to watch the sky. Because of this, most people are unaware that the Moon is
often visible in the sky during the day.
Two good times to go moon watching during the day are: 1). A few hours before sunset when the Moon is past
the phase of First Quarter but isnt yet Full. The Moon will be in the east in the late afternoon while the Sun is in the
west. 2). Early in the morning a few days after the Moon is Full, but before Last Quarter. At this time, the Moon is
in the west. The closer to full the Moon is, the more of it is lit up and the easier it is to see during the day.
The Sun and Moon are not the only things visible during the day. It is possible to see Venus in the sky during the
day if you know exactly where to look. The easiest way to do this is to see Venus before dawn and track it across
the sky as the day goes on. From time to time you may lose it, but if you know the area of the sky its in, you can
find it again.

40). Bigger is better: The most important thing telescopes do is magnify stuff.
At star parties and observatories all across the land, The Question is asked: How much magnification does your
telescope have? I always respond by asking What magnification would you like it to be? Changing the

magnification takes no more time than it takes to change the eyepiece. The problem with high magnification is that
you get a bigger image, but its fainter. A large image is also blurrier. With bad seeing (see #35), a big image of
Saturn quickly becomes a blurry washed out mess.
The most important thing telescopes do is gather light which is why theyre often called light buckets. With more
light, you can see fainter things or more detail in brighter things. The larger the light gathering surface (lens or
mirror), the better. This is why we try to make telescopes with the largest light gathering surfaces possible, although
some folks in Europe are carrying this to extremes.

41). Moonlight everywhere: All planets have moons.


Our planet certainly does. Even small bodies such as Pluto and some asteroids have moons. It seems
straightforward to think that anything in space larger than a zeppelin has a moon. The problem is that this isnt
true. Two planets have no moons (Mercury and Venus). Even if you count Earths moon and Mars moons, the inner
Solar System is pretty sparse on moons.
Once we reach the outer Solar System, things change dramatically. Both Jupiter and Saturn have over sixty
moons, and the outer snow giants of Uranus and Neptune have a respectable set of known moons over a dozen
each. It seems that large planets have plenty of moons, along with rings. Rocky worlds like Earth seem to have few
or no moons.

42). Greenhouse tall tale: The Greenhouse Effect is like a blanket.


This idea is still found in some textbooks and its completely wrong. Blankets work by keep the warm air around
you from mixing with cooler air outside the blanket. A thick blanket traps more air next to you than a thin
blanket. This has nothing to do with the Greenhouse effect.
So what is the Greenhouse Effect? Instead of a blanket, think of a foot warmer (or hot water bottle if youre Old
School British). During the day the greenhouse gases warm up just like everything else. Nighttime is when
greenhouse gases show a difference. They absorb some of the heat given off by the cooling Earth. They then release
this heat but they can release it up toward space or down toward the ground. This makes the greenhouse gases in
the air a second source of heat besides the cooling Earth. Its like having a foot warmer next to you instead of a
blanket.
The effect isnt much (unless you live on Venus: see #36), but it does keep the Earth from cooling below freezing
everywhere every night. If night lasted a very long time, these gases would lose all their heat to space and stop
heating the Earth, but nights are usually short on Earth.

43). Water, water everywhere: Water and other things life needs are only found on Earth.
One of the reasons astrobiologists are optimists about life out there is because the things (Earth-like) life needs are
found in many places throughout the Galaxy and probably in other galaxies. Water is made from two of the five
most common elements in the Universe, so its not surprising its pretty common. Water in the form of ice is all over
the outer Solar System and it makes up a big part of the moons of the gas giants. It has been found in distant clouds
of interstellar gas throughout the Galaxy, and has been located in the atmosphere of at least one exoplanet (a planet
that orbits any star besides the Sun).
Organic stuff has carbon in it, which is why its called organic. Carbon is made by old and dying stars and is also
plentiful (its also one of the five most common elements) . Even amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) have
been found in meteorites and in giant clouds of crap between the stars.
Life also needs energy, and thats common too. Near stars, sunlight is abundant and even far from stars, life can
gain energy from all sorts of chemical reactions. Strange forms of life on Earth called extremophiles can survive in
conditions that would kill humans quickly, so we have insights into life living in difficult environments right here on
Earth!

The things that (Earth-like) life needs: Water, organic stuff and energy are quite plentiful throughout the
Galaxy. Perhaps being used by life right now on a world orbiting a star 20 light-years from us in the constellation of
Libra (Gliese 581).

44). One size fits all: All stars are the same size.
Stars are as different as people except that almost everything about a star comes down to how much mass it
has. More massive stars are bigger, hotter, and give off more light. They also die quicker when they run out of
hydrogen in their core (see #3 and #19).
Dead stars, like white dwarfs and neutron stars, are tiny compared to living stars. Black holes are a special case,
because they have no size at all (more or less). Dying stars are huge compared to normal stars. Examples of dying
stars that you can easily see in the sky are Betelgeuse (in Orion), Aldebaran (in Taurus) and Antares (in Scorpius).
Normal stars which are called Main Sequence stars also vary in size. While they are all bigger than dead
stars and smaller than dying stars, they vary widely within that range. Generally, the hotter a main sequence star, the
larger and more massive they are. The hottest main sequence stars are the biggest (like Rigel [in Orion] and Spica [in
Virgo]), and the coolest main sequence stars are the smallest (such as Proxima Centauri [in Centaurus] and Barnards
star [in Ophiuchus]).
The Sun is somewhere in the middle of the Main Sequence middle temperature and middle size. This is
deceptive, though, because only 9% of all stars are hotter (and so bigger) than the Sun. But those rare stars are
enormous compared to our Sun. If we replaced the Sun with Antares (in Scorpius), Earth would be inside it!
Questions? E-mail me (Liam McDaid, SCC Astronomy Coordinator)
Thanks for visiting!