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Night sky: star, planet or satellite?  – How do you know what you saw today

Night sky: star, planet or satellite? – How do you know what you saw today

  • fromTanya Banner


A bright star in the sky that is particularly noticeable, or an inexplicable object that catches your eye in the night sky – this is how you find out what it is.

Frankfurt – With mild temperatures in the spring and summer, people like to stay outside longer and stare at the starry sky in the dark (you can read about what to see in May here). There are many objects that shine brightly and are especially noticeable if you don’t look up at the sky much. Whether it’s a bright light that doesn’t seem to move, a “star” racing across the dark sky, or some other phenomenon that has caught your eye – most celestial observations can be made clear on your own with relatively little effort.

The most important information you need to know what you saw in the sky: the cardinal direction and the time of observation. If you don’t have a compass on hand, you can use the sun to roughly determine which direction you’re facing: if the sun rises there in the morning, it’s east. If she’s there in the evening, she’s in the west. If it passed there throughout the day, you looked south and if the sun was not there, you looked north. You can also derive key points very nicely using the following meaning of memory:

Two bright objects in the evening sky – what could it be? In this case, it’s the bright planets Venus (above) and Jupiter (below). You can also see the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, which are not visible to the naked eye. (archive photo)

© IMAGO / Uwe Meinhold

The sun rises in the east and rises high in the south. In the West you will prove, in the North you will never see.

A note on the main points

Some things can be explained more easily by looking at the cardinal direction – for example, in the spring of 2023, Venus can be seen in the west in the evening. If you’ve spotted a very bright “star” in the west in the evening, Venus must be your “evening star.”

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An overview of and explanation of the most common sky observations.

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The ‘Bright Light’ does not move in the sky: is it a star or a planet?

Do you see a “bright light” in the sky that does not move from the spot for a long time? Then it is very likely to be a star or a planet. You can distinguish between the two types of celestial bodies by taking a closer look: The stars shine, but the planets do not. The twinkling of stars is caused by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere, which light must pass through in order to reach the human eye. Although the light from the planets must pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, because the planets are much brighter, the planet’s flash is usually not noticeable.

If you’re still not sure whether you’ve seen a star or a planet, there are other options: for example, use a digital star map such as the free program Stellarium (Also available for smartphones) To discover what you saw in the sky. Once the app is installed, you can point your smartphone at the celestial body to see what it is about. To distinguish a star from a planet, it also helps to observe the orb in the sky for several nights. Planets move across the starry sky over time, moving from one constellation to another, and thus were also called “wandering stars” in the past.

A “bright spot” sweeping across the sky: an airplane, the International Space Station, or the Starlink satellite?

If you see a “bright light” moving quickly across the night sky, there are also many possibilities for what you noticed: it could be a satellite, for example, but it could also be an airplane. The distinction here is relatively simple: Airplanes blink, satellites don’t blink. If an object you see in the sky is blinking or has green or red lights on it, for example, then it is an airplane. You can identify a satellite by the fact that it does not blink, but moves across the sky as a rather bright point of light and then disappears again.

Shortly after launch, the Starlink satellites are still very close together and hard to miss in the sky. Many observers describe the scene as a “chain of lights” or “a trail of light”. (archive photo)

© Imago Images/Belga

With a little experience, you can distinguish between different types of satellites: SpaceX’s “Starlink” satellites, for example, usually appear in a larger group—and one moon is guaranteed to be followed by several others. The International Space Station ISS, which can also be seen moving occasionally across the night sky, is still alone. It also shines brighter than the Starlink satellites. You can track the paths of various satellites using applications such as Stellarium or “sky from above” Understand – for this you need not only the direction of the observation but also the exact time at which you were observed.

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Special phenomena in the sky: the launch of “Starlink”, rockets and others

In addition to these daily observations of the night sky, there are also unusual sightings. Some of them are so unusual that observers call the UFO Reporting Center. The UFO Reporting Office of the Central Research Network of Unusual Celestial Phenomena (CENAP) explains these phenomena – balloons or drones are often behind the observations. However, Starlink satellites often confuse people looking up at the sky.

Would you have known what you were seeing in the sky in this case or would you have called the UFO reporting office? The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket can be seen shortly after launch.

© IMAGO / Gene Blevins

No wonder: you can’t see them as individual satellites flying one after another at a distance. Shortly after launch, they are so close to each other, it’s almost a frightening sight in the sky. Many observers talk of a “string of lights” or “a trail of light” in the sky after the Starlinks take off.

Such a spiral in the sky can occur when the rocket stage runs out of fuel, which is then illuminated by the sun, which has already set.

© National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

Different stages of rocket launches can also look strange in the sky – for example, a vortex can appear in the sky when a rocket stage emits remaining fuel. Burning rocket parts or rocket stage separation can also sometimes be seen in the sky. On the other hand, shooting stars, meteorites and fireballs have a natural origin – here a fairly large stone from space penetrates into the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up. You can do this whether there are other fireball sightings Read in a private database. Ha You can also report seeing a fireball there. (unpaid bill)

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Rule list: © IMAGO / Uwe Meinhold