It’s time for another 10 Astronomy Myths that I can debunk for you! Some of them are basic, others are false claims that circulate amongst astrologers and flat earthers.
If you feel like I’m missing a particular myth, please refer to the other two posts I have already submitted. This is the third set of myths!
Myth: All Astronomers are Astrophysicists And Know How to Use a Telescope
In fact, you will find that astronomy is such a huge field that it not only blends beautifully with other scientific fields, but that there isn’t just one type of astronomer.
Yes there’s definitely those who specialize in astrophysics. But there’s those who specialize in the chemical side, the geological side, the archaeological side, etc. Some are in the field as coders and programmers for the hardware and software needed for the research instruments. Others are engineers and work on rockets! There are also painters and graphic artists who construct artistic impressions based on the data they’re given… with amazing accuracy too!
Telescope users and photographers are actually a small fraction. While I personally know some physicists and mathematicians who dabble in telescopes and astrophotography as a hobby, A lot of those who specialize in the lab research are busy enough that that they have observers operate telescopes and record the data for them to look over, or use the data acquired from another observatory.
While a researcher may know every little attribute about a particular object thanks to the data they’ve digested and concluded, they may not necessarily know where the star actually is in the sky – that’s where people like me come in.
So if you were to ask me what I do professionally in astronomy, I’d tell you I’m an observer. I’ve never claimed to be a physicist or a researcher.
Myth: The 2020 Great Conjunction Was A “Star of Bethlehem” or “Christmas Star”
Even though most Christians believe the Star of Bethlehem was an actual event that happened, they also acknowledge and agree that Jesus was not scholastically born on December 25, and that the popular art depicting a baby Jesus in a manger with his parents and three wise men is inaccurate.
While there was a Great Conjunction that occurred in 7BC, it’s not what I would consider to be he top candidate of what could have been seen as the Biblical star by Babylonian astrologers in that time window, and what we saw in December 2020 was FAR more rare and impressive.
So then why did the media call it a “Christmas Star?” It was to hype up the super rare event and add more icing to the already deliciously frosted cake!
Anytime there’s a notable celestial event that’s in the month of December, especially if within a few days of the holiday, that event is often given that “Christmas” label by popular media. An Eclipse in December? “Oh, it’s a ‘Christmas Eclipse!'” Comet 46P/ Wirtanen back in 2018? “It’s the ‘Christmas Comet of 2018!'” You know what? The 2020 Geminds peaked on the fourth night of Hanukkah, so why didn’t we call it the “Hanukkah Meteor Shower?” That would have been more correct!
Do they need those labels? No. But do I acknowledge that a lot of casuals won’t pay attention or hear about it otherwise unless they see that label? Of course.
Just please, let people like us give the facts, okay?!
Myth: The Earth and Moon are Super Close To Each Other
You’ve seen plenty of illustrations on the Moon orbiting Earth, and they always look like a close knit couple, or even a “double planet” if you will. But in actuality, the Moon is on average about 238,000 miles (384,400 km) away from us.
Believe it or not, that’s actually so far away, that you could hypothetically fit all 7 other planets and even a couple of minor planets lined up in between Earth and the Moon.
And of course, their distances pale in comparison to how big our Sun actually is!
Of course we could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Myth: “Super Moons” and Lunar Eclipses are Super Rare
Why, oh why does the media portray “Super Moons” – when the Moon is at perigee and looks slightly bigger – as must see rare events?! There are usually three to four super moons each year! Not so rare now, is it?!
“Oh, it’s a ‘Super’ <insert month name> Moon! You won’t see that again for another XXX years!” That’s like saying you won’t eat pizza on a particular date at a particular time for x amount of lengthy time period… when in reality, it’s the same pizza you’ve always eaten! Full moons are no different, and it doesn’t matter how much it gets hyped, it’s still a full moon that you see every 27-29 days!
But what about Lunar Eclipses? Even though they are listed higher up as “Rare” Events on my Celestial Event Scale, the fact is they still happen semi-frequently, and you can get as many as 2-4 in a given year – 2020 saw four penumbral lunar eclipses, and 2021 will see two: a total, and a nearly total partial visible over North America. As long as you are on the night half of Earth when they happen, you’ll see it.
What makes Total Lunar Eclipses more rare is how often you’re able to see them. They can happen while you’re on the “wrong” side of Earth, or they can happen during hours when you’re sleeping and thus you miss them. But don’t listen to any headline that says “you won’t see another Lunar Eclipse of this type for <decades to centuries>…” Don’t worry, if you miss out on one, there’s always a chance that another one is about to happen in as little as a few months from now!
Myth: The Closest Objects In Space Are The Easiest To Observe
As a telescope user, the second most often question I get asked is “how far can your telescope see?”
People assume that the things that are most distant are the toughest to see, and that’s not always the case! When I illustrate this, I ask people, “what’s closer, the Andromeda Galaxy or Pluto?” And when they correctly identify Pluto as being closer, I then ask “so what’s easier to see?” They are then surprised to hear that Pluto is too small to detect through most backyard telescopes because it doesn’t appear big or bright enough, while Andromeda appears big and large enough to be visible to the naked eye despite its 2.5 million light year distance!
The key attribute is the light, and how bright that light appears from Earth. As long as the light itself is bright enough, then I can see it. If it’s not bright enough, then it doesn’t matter how close the object is, I won’t be able to see it.
Even though I could theoretically detect Quasars that are a few billion light years away, there are asteroids, minor planets, and moons orbiting the other planets in the solar system that I cannot see because they’re not bright enough, and must either get closer, or I need a bigger telescope!
Myth: Rocks Do Not Reflect Light Therefore the Moon Does Not Reflect Light
This is one that flat earthers like to tout due to their misunderstanding of the Moon reflecting the Sun’s light. They will use this to claim that the Moon and other “wandering stars” are generating – not reflecting light towards us.
Earth is a terrestrial rocky planet, so how else are we able to see the landscape during the day? It’s very clear that the Sun is casting light, and that things blocking it cast shadows on the ground… that means that Earth’s landscape is not generating light – it’s reflecting it!
The Moon itself may not be a bright object, but it is big enough, reflective enough, and close enough to reflect enough light that we can see with the naked eye. When you see it at night, compared to the black background the Moon looks like a spotlight!
Lunar eclipses also prove it’s reflecting light every time Earth’s shadow gets projected on the surface… and I have observed Jupiter’s moon’s cast distinct round shadows on its surface when transiting in front of it, and have seen shadows cast on Saturn’s rings by the planet body itself…. you cannot cast shadows on sources generating light! Reflecting? Yes! But not generating!
Myth: February 2021 Brings the Age of Aquarius
This one is just plain sad! People actually believe this?! This is something you can EASILY CHECK by consulting a star or planetarium app on your phone!
Pick any given day on February 2021 and you’ll see that this statement is easily proven false! At NO POINT in February 2021 will all seven planets be in front of Aquarius!
Jupiter, and Saturn will be in front of Capricorn; Mercury flips back and forth between Capricorn and Aquarius; Venus spends most of February in Capricorn; Mars moves from Aries to Taurus; Uranus remains in Aries; That leaves Neptune as the only planet that stays in front of Aquarius for February!
Myth: The Sun is Massive Enough to Explode One Day
Rest assured, folks, the Sun will NOT go supernovae. Not in our lifetime, not in the Sun’s lifetime!
Stars that can end up as a supernova are estimated to be between 8-15 times more massive than our Sun. Compared to our Sun, because these stars run out of fuel much faster, they do not exist for very long – living for a few million to hundreds of millions of years compared to our Sun’s 10 billion year life span.
Are there candidates near us that CAN go Supernova and have noticeable effects? Absolutely! There are six candidates within 30-1000 light years from us, with the closest candidate being IK Pegasi, about 154 light years from us. But the consensus is they don’t pose too much of a danger to life on our planet.
Myth: Stars Actually Twinkle and Flicker
People often think that the stars themselves are twinkling, and flickering on their own due to their own stellar energy. Nope!
It’s our atmosphere!
It always has been, and always will be the cause for why stars appear to twinkle! Light from stars that reaches us gets bent and refracted once it gets in our atmosphere. The more turbulent the atmosphere above us is, the more you see the stars twinkle. On nights where the atmosphere is super steady (what we call excellent “seeing conditions”), you don’t see them twinkle much at all!
Wait? Why don’t planets appear to twinkle? Not only are they closer to us, but their apparent sizes mean they are actually tiny discs in the sky, not points of light. These tiny discs act more like “spotlights” which can give a more steadier flow of light. You can see this phenomenon at work just by looking at distant lights in a city… the lights that appear more as points are more prone to twinkling, while lights that look more like spotlights don’t. That again is all due to to currents in the air!
Myth: Shooting Stars Are Actually Stars
I remember biting my tongue one day when in a high school class, a bunch of students could not understand that “shooting stars” were not actually stars. They kept asking the teacher “well wouldn’t we die if a shooting star entered our atmosphere?” “But if they’re stars wouldn’t they burn us up?” “I thought stars were huge balls of gas!”
And I still encounter people who don’t quite get it! Then again, I’ve met people who are still genuinely surprised to hear the Sun is a star, and let’s not forget about the gentleman who thought there were craters on the Sun.
They are NOT actual stars! They just look like them for a moment to the naked eye and appear like a star is streaking!
“Shooting Stars” are a nickname for what are actually meteors! Those beautiful blink and you’ll miss sights in the sky are merely particles, dust, rocks – most no bigger than a pebble – entering our atmosphere and burning up!