Most scintillation effects are caused by anomalous refraction caused by small-scale fluctuations in air density usually related to temperature gradients.

Stars twinkle because they are so far from Earth that they appear as point sources of light easily disturbed by Earth's atmospheric turbulence which acts like lenses and prisms diverting the light's path.

Large astronomical objects closer to Earth, like the Moon and other planets, encompass many points in space and can be resolved as objects with observable diameters. With multiple observed points of light traversing the atmosphere, their light's deviations average out and the viewer perceives less variation in light coming from them. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twinkling

But I don't understand why light coming from one point is more scattered than light coming from more points. I would expect the opposite because the lines to the receiver are more close together. Besides that, how is the deviated light of a planets averaged out. Is the light (of the edges) of the disc (planet) really capable of getting a constructive interference or something like that? How could this work?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I would consider including this related link in your post. It is not a duplicate, especially with respect to your last paragraph, but perhaps some users might that it is think it is ; physics.stackexchange.com/questions/68200/why-do-stars-flicker $\endgroup$
    – user146020
    Mar 9, 2017 at 21:40

2 Answers 2


The light from each point of a planet surface is scattered almost exactly as much as from a distant star. The trick is to figure out which part of our turbulent atmosphere affects the image of the whole object.

Let's assume your dilated pupil size is 6mm.

1) When you're looking at a star - you're looking at it through cylinder which has 6mm diameter and is ~10km long.

2) When you're looking at a planet with angular size of only 10 arcseconds (average size for a mars) you're looking through a cone which is 6mm in diameter on the one end and 484+6=490mm on the other end (tan(10 arcseconds)*10km=484mm).

Thus rays from different points of planet surface (even if it's beyond eye resolution) go through significantly different parts of the atmosphere (up to 490mm apart, compared to 6mm apart for a star), and got refracted randomly and thus averaged as each photon goes through significantly different path through atmosphere.

Now we can see that rays from mars "average" much larger volume of earth's atmosphere, even though you still see it as a single point (it's 6 times smaller than eye resolution).

  • $\begingroup$ So do we receive from planets more photons in our eyes? If so than they must be brighter, but is this really what we experience when comparing stars with planets? $\endgroup$
    – Marijn
    Mar 10, 2017 at 9:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Marijn No, number of photons could be the same if their brightness is the same. The main difference is that photons from planet go through more diverse paths through the atmosphere. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2017 at 11:01

It is related to the Rayleigh criterion. This states that the minimum angle with which two sources can be distinguished is the angle $$ \theta~=~1.22\frac{\lambda}{D}, $$ for $\lambda$ the wavelength, and $D$ the aperature diameter. The $1.22$ comes from the first Bessel function $J_1(x)$. Consider Venus, which does not twinkle. It has a diameter of about $6000km$ and we observe it across a distance of say $5\times 10^7km$. And this is an angle $1.2\times 10^{-4}rad$ or $7\times 10^{-3}$ degrees. For optical light around $500nm$ and an eye pupil of $.5cm$ the Rayleigh criterion is $\theta~=~1\times 10^{-4}$ That is very close, and if you think about it you can almost see Venus as a disk. The same is the case with the other planets. Now compare this to the angle to a distant star $\theta~<~10^{-8}rad$.

Optical turbulence is most pronounced below the Rayleigh criterion, which is why stars twinkle and planets do not. In order to resolve stars as a disk you have to have an optical aperture $10^3$ or $10^4$ times the eye pupil. This is on the order of $10m$ to $100m$, which is at the upper limit of modern telescopes.

  • $\begingroup$ Not sure it is related. Eye cannot resolve surface of Mars as a disk - yet it twinkle much less as I've shown. Also, eye angular resolution is well below diffraction limit - you cannot expect diffraction-limited performance from 1-lens optical system. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2017 at 11:04

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