Looking up at the night sky can be a humbling and awe-inspiring experience. But did you know that there are fascinating facts and phenomena happening above us every night? From shimmering auroras to mysterious black holes, join me as I explore 25 interesting and amazing night sky viewing facts that will leave you starstruck.
These will expand your understanding and spark intrigue for when you start stargazing.
- The expanse we see: Our galaxy (the Milky Way) contains a mind-blowing 200–400 billion stars and over 100 billion planets. The stars we see are actually just one galaxy among billions in the universe. The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest galaxy to our own and appears as a faint smudge in the night sky. The observable universe: There are 200 billion to 2 trillion or more galaxies estimated in the observable universe!! Note: ‘observable’.
- Shooting stars, or meteors: These are actually clumps of dust and debris burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The Perseid meteor shower, which occurs in August, is one of the most popular meteor showers to watch. See my article on how to get ready to watch meteor showers.
- Evening and Morning Star: The planet Venus can often be seen in the early morning or evening night sky, and appears as a bright star low in the sky. For how Venus looks like through a telescope – check out what I discovered in this article on the features you’ll see.
- The Milky Way: The name, Milky Way, describes how our galaxy looks from Earth. Various nations have alternative names (as per Wikipedia), but the most common is the Milky Way. In Greek mythology it is said the goddess Hera sprayed milk across the sky in relation to how our galaxy appears to us. The To the Romans our galaxy seen from Earth was a road of milk. They named it “via lactea”. In China the Milky Way is refered to as ‘Silver River’ (銀河). The Milky Way in Africa: The people of the Kalahari Desert in Africa call the Milky Way the ‘Backbone of Night‘.
☞ See the features worth observing in the Milky Way.
- The humbling distance: Gazing at the night sky adds depth and balance to our world. I’ve done this with wonder since childhood. The expanse of the universe is humbling with the observable edge about 46.5 billion light years away.
- View from Southern Hemisphere: Aussies and New Zealanders (Kiwis) see not only the Moon, but also the constellations, opposite side up to that observed by star watchers in the Northern Hemisphere.
- Asterims: The Big Dipper, also known as the Plough, is not actually a constellation but an asterism, a recognizable pattern of stars within a larger constellation. The ‘saucepan’ is an asterism in the upside-down Archer (Orion) viewed in the southern hemisphere. The belt and sword, together, looks like a saucepan (or pot).
- Navigational aids: The Southern Cross constellation, seen only in the southern hemisphere, is a navigation aid for Aussies and Kiwis looking for the direction of south, just like Polaris in the northern hemisphere indicates north. The North Star, or Polaris, is used as a guide for navigation because it sits almost directly above the North Pole. For more, see my article about navigational aids in the night sky.
- Constellations seen in the Southern Hemisphere: The southern hemisphere constellations and star clusters that are well known in that part of the world include the saucepan (the belt and sword of Orion), the Seven Sisters (Pleiades), and the Southern Cross (Crux).
- Best time to stargaze in Australia: Winter is best time in Australia for stargazing because of a higher frequency of clear dark nights and a low chill factor.
- Cultural astronomy: Like traditional Australian Aboriginal groups, ancient peoples all over the world studied the skies. Traditional Australian backyard astronomers: Australian aboriginal people recognized a dark-sky constellation, an Emu, in the Milky way. Cultural stories were told of this Emu. Guide for traditional people: Reading the night sky guided traditional peoples on seasonal hunting, gathering, cultivating, and living intuitively. Polynesians navigated the Pacific Ocean using stars in the night sky.
- Science: The study of stars and planets is one of the oldest sciences.
- Astrology beginning: Astronomy was originally called astrology (astro- meaning star, and -ology a subject of study).
- Astronomy born: Astronomy and astrology doctrines separated in the 17th century.
- Galileo Galilei: (1564–1642) the “father of modern astronomy” was an astrologer.
- Zodiac signs: All 12 western zodiac signs: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces, relate to stellar constellations.
- The red supergiant: Antares, is the ‘heart’ of Scorpius (Scorpio). Its diameter is 750 times that of our Sun and its luminosity more than tens of thousands that of our yellow dwarf Sun.
- Unaided eye viewing: With your naked eyes you will see 1000s of stars in the night sky. In total around the planet the official figure is 9096. But your location, eyes, and the atmospheric conditions affects this number. At least half are blocked from your standing point. With binoculars, you’re likely to see 25 to 50 times more than with the naked eye.
- Darker side of the Moon: We only ever see one side of the Moon. The side we don’t see is the ‘dark side of the Moon’ (also an album name of Pink Floyd) AKA far side of the Moon. Craters cover the surface of this side, many more than on the visible side. We don’t see this cratered side because the Moon’s rotation is captured by Earth — it’s tidally locked with our planet — it circles Earth at the same speed it spins around its axis.
- Meaning of dark side of the Moon: The dark side of the Moon is lit approximately 14 days of the month. Consider ‘dark’ as unknown rather than unlit. We never see the far side lit as it faces away from Earth when the Moon is between the Sun and Earth (in the New Moon phase).
- The International Space Station (ISS) can be seen at times flying overhead as a bright, fast-moving object. Look up popular astronomy apps for the timing of its passing and check out my quick guide to help you spot the station from your backyard.
- The Crab Nebula, located in the constellation Taurus, is the remnant of a supernova explosion that was observed by Chinese astronomers in the year 1054.
- Birth of stars: The Great Orion Nebula, located in the constellation Orion, is a stellar nursery where new stars are being born.
- Flower made of stars: The Rosette Nebula, located in the constellation Monoceros, is a star-forming region that resembles a flower.
- Dark clouds and constellations: The Horsehead Nebula, located in the constellation Orion, is a dark cloud of dust and gas that blocks the light from behind it. The Dark Emu is a dark constellation in the Milky Way depicted by the Australian aboriginals.