That's No Moon, It's a Space Station

You can see lots of interesting things in the night sky, even without a telescope. What are they? Ask Science explains how to tell the difference between planets, stars, the International Space Station, and other celestial bodies.

Lee Falin, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #67

A few nights ago my family and I were lying on our backs in the back garden, staring up at night sky waiting for a meteor shower. While we watched for fiery balls of doom to rain down upon us from the heavens, we saw several other interesting lights, some of which were more fascinating to my kids than the actual meteor shower. So today I want to talk about some of the things you can see in the night sky and how you can tell the difference between them.

When you're staring up into the night sky, by far the most common things you’ll see are the stars themselves. One of the neat things about stars is that they come in a variety of colors. A star’s color depends upon its temperature. Red stars are cooler than orange, which are cooler than yellow, and so on through white and finally blue..

Because of how the Earth’s atmosphere seems to make the stars twinkle, it can be hard to tell what their true color is. Since Orion is a constellation that most people are able to locate, the next time you see it, take a look at the star representing Orion's left shoulder. If you look carefully, you'll notice that the star, called Betelgeuse, should have a red tint to it. Compare that to Rigel, the star that represents Orion's right foot, which should have a slight blue tinge to its light.


Another common sight in the night sky is the appearance of the other planets in our solar system. In the episode Is it a Star or a Planet?, I mentioned several ways to tell the difference between stars and planets, as well as some tips for being able to distinguish between different planets. However the biggest clue that the light you see in the sky is a planet and not a star, is the fact that planets typically don't appear to twinkle, while stars do. Planets also travel along set paths, rising at predictable times, traveling across the sky close to the same path the sun takes, before setting again. For more information on the difference between stars and planets, check out Is it a star or a Planet?

That’s No Moon...It’s a Space Station! 

If your timing is right, you might also be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the International Space Station zipping around the Earth. The International Space Station, or ISS, is a multi-unit collaborative effort between several different countries. Each component fits together like a set of Lego blocks.....


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech.