Why do stars flicker and planets don't? At least this is what I've read online and seen on the night sky. I've heard that it has to do something with the fact that stars emit light and planets reflect it. But I don't get it, isn't this light, just "light"? What happens to the reflected light that it doesn't flicker anymore?

I was thinking that it has to do something with Earth's atmosphere, different temperatures or something (if this has any role at all).


4 Answers 4


Here is a nice answer, taken from http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/astronomy/stars/twinkle.shtml

The scientific name for the twinkling of stars is stellar scintillation (or astronomical scintillation). Stars twinkle when we see them from the Earth's surface because we are viewing them through thick layers of turbulent (moving) air in the Earth's atmosphere. Stars (except for the Sun) appear as tiny dots in the sky; as their light travels through the many layers of the Earth's atmosphere, the light of the star is bent (refracted) many times and in random directions (light is bent when it hits a change in density - like a pocket of cold air or hot air). This random refraction results in the star winking out (it looks as though the star moves a bit, and our eye interprets this as twinkling). Stars closer to the horizon appear to twinkle more than stars that are overhead - this is because the light of stars near the horizon has to travel through more air than the light of stars overhead and so is subject to more refraction. Also, planets do not usually twinkle, because they are so close to us; they appear big enough that the twinkling is not noticeable (except when the air is extremely turbulent). Stars would not appear to twinkle if we viewed them from outer space (or from a planet/moon that didn't have an atmosphere).


This is just a sidenote to Nijankowski's nice answer: This twinkling of stars caused by atmospheric turbulence was a major problem for the earlier reflecting telescopes when astronomers tried to look deep into the sky.

Placing the telescope over mountains solved only a part of the problem. A good solution was brought up in two ways in the 1990s. First, sending telescopes to space - Hubble Space Telescope was carried to orbit where it took astonishingly sharp images like the Hubble Deep Field due to the absence of atmosphere's interaction. Then arrived the serious flaw in its mirror. Repairing the telescope (by orbiting in space) was a very big problem as many equipments have to be replaced by service missions.

The second solution was adaptive optics. In telescopes like the Large Binocular Telescope, a secondary mirror was placed which is readily deformable and the shape is modified according to the incoming light source by a number of hydraulic pistons behind, thus correcting for some amount of atmospheric distortion.


They twinkle because of all the planets and space debris passing quickly between earth and the star that your'e looking at, am I the only one that has worked this out?

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    $\begingroup$ The dominant origin of scintillation is the Earth's atmosphere. Transiting planets and other debris in space are negligible, by a long shot. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Oman
    Jan 18, 2019 at 8:11

Much closer than stars are the distant lamps (polychromatic or monochromatic), say 2 to 3km away, also twinkle. this cannot be related to change of index of refraction due to temperature's variations , since the frequency of this twinkling does not vary strongly with air turbulence. the accepted explanation for this is: light is formed of photons (light particles) which spreads out from the source in all directions, thus as the distance increases, the spherical surface area increases with the square of the radius, hence photon's flux decreases, and the number of photons reaching the eye become less frequent. at the times of absence of photons entering the eye, the image of the source disappear. Moreover, it is known from astronomy, that forming an image of a very far celestial object needs long time, and large lenses or mirrors. this shows that: in order to form an image, an enough number of photons is needed, which requires long time to collect them.
By Sami Kheireddine

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome on Physics SE. As you can see from the other upvoted and accepted answers, this is not a canonical, accepted answer. Could you please provide a scientific source for your statements? $\endgroup$
    – Sanya
    Jul 27, 2016 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that large telescopes with multi-element main mirrors can (and do) do active compensation for atmospheric distortions which they measure in real time by tracking the back-scatter of pilot lasers pointed parallel to the telescope line of sight. The fact that this works demonstrates that turbulence lensing is the dominate effect (that is, the accepted answer is right). $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2016 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ If star twinkling is due to change of direction of the path of light, then stars would have been observed OSCILLATING , not twinkling. $\endgroup$ Jul 28, 2016 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ IT should be noted that forming an image of a far away celestial object does NOT require a long time. Many astronomers will take a long time to try to reduce noise in the image, but an image can be formed in real-time as well. $\endgroup$
    – Jim
    Jul 28, 2016 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ Deep field observations are long-lasting observations of a particular region of the sky intended to reveal faint objects by collecting the light from them for an appropriately long time. The 'deeper' the observation is (i.e. longer exposure time), the fainter are the objects that become visible on the images. Astronomical objects can either look faint because their natural brightness is low, or because of their distance. In the case of the Hubble Deep and Ultra Deep Fields, it is the extreme distances involved which make them faint from: spacetelescope.org/science/deep_fields $\endgroup$ Jul 28, 2016 at 13:42

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