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Top 10 Interesting and Fun Facts About the Night Sky

Amanda is a retired educator with many years of experience teaching children of all ages and abilities in various contexts.

Interesting night sky facts

Interesting night sky facts

The Amazing Night Sky

Humans have been fascinated by the stars since...well, since there were humans. Every culture in every era of human existence has looked up at the nighttime stars and pondered just about anything and everything.

Countless songs, works of art, myths, legends and scientific discoveries have been inspired by the night sky. And as long as we're capable of walking outside at night and looking up in wonder, our fascination will never end. As Plato said:

"Astronomy compels the soul to look upward, and leads us from this world to another."

Let's take a look at some of the most amazing, fun and interesting facts about the night sky.

10 Facts About the Night Sky

  1. Ancient People Imagined a Celestial Sphere
  2. The Northern Hemisphere Has a Pole Star
  3. The Southern Hemisphere Is Packed With Visible Stars
  4. Star Maps Are Older Than You Think
  5. Constellations Are Always Changing
  6. Your Zodiac Sign Isn't Where You Think It Is
  7. Stars Are All Over the Place
  8. A Shooting Star Could Be a Satellite
  9. The Auroras Are Simply Amazing to Behold
  10. Those Constellations Won't Stay Still
The "celestial sphere" of modern astronomy showing the night sky "wrapped around" the earth at its center

The "celestial sphere" of modern astronomy showing the night sky "wrapped around" the earth at its center

1. Ancient People Imagined a Celestial Sphere

In ancient and medieval times, people imagined the Earth to be the center of the universe, surrounded by a “celestial sphere”. They thought the celestial sphere was like a huge hollow ball enclosing the Earth, with the stars fixed to its inner surface. As the sphere rotated, the stars moved across the sky.

While we now know the universe spreads out in all directions around us and the stars are scattered across vast distances, astronomers still use the concept of the celestial sphere to help them map the night skies.

Modern astronomy divides the conceptual celestial sphere into two hemispheres, the northern and the southern, and helps us plot the positions of stars and track their movements.

A section of the night sky of the northern hemisphere showing the Milky Way

A section of the night sky of the northern hemisphere showing the Milky Way

2. The Northern Hemisphere Has a Pole Star

If you stand at the North Pole and gaze up at the night sky, you will see a dazzling star right in the middle. Astronomers know this as Polaris, or the Pole Star. Polaris lies above the central point of the Earth’s axis of rotation. All the other stars visible in the night sky of the northern hemisphere appear to revolve around it.

A spectacular, panoramic view of the Milky Way as seen in the night sky of the southern hemisphere in Chile.

A spectacular, panoramic view of the Milky Way as seen in the night sky of the southern hemisphere in Chile.

3. The Southern Hemisphere Is Packed With Visible Stars

Unlike the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere has no star lying directly above the polar axis of rotation. So in the southern hemisphere, there is no equivalent of the Pole Star. But the visible stars in the south are far more numerous, densely packed, and often brighter and more spectacular to behold.

The image above shows the stars in the night sky of the southern hemisphere. The band of tightly clustered stars arcing across it, also visible in the northern hemisphere, is the Milky Way. The Milky Way is our “home galaxy”. It is a large, flattish, spiral galaxy that appears as a band of stars from our perspective on Earth because the solar system lies in its plane.

The Chinese Dunhuang star map of 700 AD. Ursa Major, Sagittarius and Capricornus are recognizable. The three colors (white, black and yellow) indicate the schools of astronomy of Shih Shen, Kan Te and Wu Hsien.

The Chinese Dunhuang star map of 700 AD. Ursa Major, Sagittarius and Capricornus are recognizable. The three colors (white, black and yellow) indicate the schools of astronomy of Shih Shen, Kan Te and Wu Hsien.

4. Star Maps Are Older Than You Think

It would appear that most cultures in antiquity were creating star maps or "star charts". As far as we know, the Egyptians created the "oldest accurately dated star chart" in 1534 BC. Babylonian astronomers in Mesopotamia in the late 2nd millennium BC are said to have compiled the earliest known star catalogues.

Some sources claim that early Chinese astronomers may have been creating murals with star charts as far back as 4,000 BC, but so far, there is no definitive, reliable source to prove this.

In prehistory, several artifacts have been theorized to be early attempts at rendering stars and constellations:

  • A mammoth tusk discovered in Germany that is 32,500 years old has carvings that could be a drawing of Orion.
  • A French cave drawing between 10,000 and 33,000 years old may be a primitive artist's interpretation of the Pleiades cluster.
  • A rock carving approximately 5,000 years old found in Kashmir has been theorized to be a depiction of a supernova.

It's still up for debate which culture can claim the "oldest star map", and new discoveries will keep the debate evolving, but all evidence does point to the study of the night sky being an ongoing subject of scientific curiosity and detailed map-making, no matter which ancient time period or far-off corner of the world.

This 17th-century star map from the British Museum demonstrates a mixture of scientific observation and superstition. The constellations are correctly plotted, but with additional details of astrological significance.

This 17th-century star map from the British Museum demonstrates a mixture of scientific observation and superstition. The constellations are correctly plotted, but with additional details of astrological significance.

5. Constellations Are Always Changing

Because we can only see the stars at night, we cannot observe those that lie on the opposite side of the Sun as seen from Earth. But because the Earth revolves around the Sun over the 12 months of the year, the stars that are hidden or visible will change month by month.

During the annual cycle, astronomers can see the entire celestial sphere. This movement explains why different constellations are visible from Earth at different times of the year, and why the stars appear to “move across the sky”.

A table showing the astronomical progression of the zodiacal constellations as they appear in the night sky

Zodiac SignDates Aligned with Sun

♈ Aries

21st April–22nd May

♉ Taurus

22nd May–21st June

♊ Gemini

22nd June–22nd July

♋ Cancer

23rd July–23rd August

♌ Leo

24th August–22nd September

♍ Virgo

23rd September–23rd of October

♎ Libra

24th October–22nd November

♏ Scorpio

23rd November–21st December

♐ Sagittarius

22nd December–20th January

♑ Capricorn

21st January–18th February

♒ Aquarius

19th February–20th March

♓ Pisces

21st March–20th April

6. Your Zodiac Sign Isn't Where You Think It Is

While gazing at the night sky, ancient people connected various constellations with symbolic figures known as the “signs of the Zodiac”. Twelve of these constellations exist. They are not all visible at the same time, but we can see them over the course of a year as the Sun appears in front of each one.

It’s important to note that while these star constellations exist, their precise astronomical dates are not the same as their “astrological” dates or significance. While some people still believe in astrology, which claims these star clusters have a mystical influence on the lives of individual humans according to their time and place of birth, discoveries of modern science suggest this belief is probably mistaken.

Astronomical vs. Astrological Alignment

The table above shows each zodiac sign and the astronomical dates when it aligns with the Sun. The astrological dates are inaccurate by about a month.

For those folks panicking that their zodiac sign will change due to the shifting of the constellations, it's more likely that the signs of the zodiac were simply named after the constellations as opposed to being tied to their positions in the sky. So if you love being a Gemini or a Capricorn or an Aries, it's safe to say that you still are!

A diagram showing the relative distances of stars in space and how they appear on the surface of the conceptual celestial sphere

A diagram showing the relative distances of stars in space and how they appear on the surface of the conceptual celestial sphere

7. Stars Are All Over the Place

We are so familiar with the inner surface of the celestial sphere that it’s hard to imagine the real depth of the night sky. While the stars in a constellation appear to lie on the same plane, in reality they are almost unimaginable distances from each other.

One reason the human mind groups together stars so disassociated in space is because, from our perspective on Earth, the stars appear to shine with similar brightness.

A photograph of a "shooting star". Shooting stars are actually particles of space debris, ice and rock, burning up as they enter the Earth's atmosphere.

A photograph of a "shooting star". Shooting stars are actually particles of space debris, ice and rock, burning up as they enter the Earth's atmosphere.

8. A Shooting Star Could Be a Satellite

When you look up at the night sky, sometimes you may see stars that appear to move. Those which burn brightly, fall quickly, and then fade away are not stars at all—they are meteors or comets.

Comets are chunks of natural space debris, ice and rock, which travel at the outer limits of the solar system. Occasionally particles of dust or rock from a comet fall into the Earth’s gravitational field and become meteors burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Most people know meteors as “shooting stars”.

If you see a star which seems to move across the sky at a steady pace with a consistent brightness, it’s probably a human-made satellite orbiting the Earth and reflecting the Sun’s light.

9. The Auroras Are Simply Amazing to Behold

Most people living in North America and Europe have heard of the northern lights. Astronomers know the northern lights as the aurora borealis. But you may not be aware that a southern aurora—known as the aurora australis or southern lights— also exists.

The auroras are one of the most beautiful celestial phenomena you can see with the naked eye, filling the skies with undulating waves of luminous and colorful lights. The auroras are best observed near the North Pole or the South Pole. These phenomena are caused by powerful electromagnetic waves emanating from the Sun and carrying tiny particles into the Earth’s atmosphere on the solar winds.

Diagram showing how the appearance of the constellations changes over time

Diagram showing how the appearance of the constellations changes over time

10. Those Constellations Won't Stay Still

During a single human lifetime, or even after many generations, the constellations we know today will always appear the same. However, their shapes change over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. As gravitational forces interact, the universe continues to expand and Earth’s orbit slowly shifts, the stars on the “surface of the celestial sphere” will move.

The night sky has always inspired artists and poets.

The night sky has always inspired artists and poets.

The Night Sky Adventure Continues

And so we wrap up our exploration of the night sky. But the adventure doesn't end here. Every day, keen astronomers, amateur and professional, continue to study the wonders of the night sky, making new discoveries all the time.

We should always take time to remember Plato's advice—look upward and go to another world. When was the last time you looked up at the stars?

© 2018 Amanda Littlejohn

Comments

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on November 04, 2018:

Hi klauli29178,

Thanks for your kind comment about this article.

All the primary constellations can be seen with the naked eye, just as our earliest ancestors saw them. Planets also visible without a telescope include Mercury, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus. The Andromeda Galaxy is the most distant object in the night sky that you can see unassisted. Of course, much depends on location, time of year, and light pollution. But all of these should be visible on a clear night.

I hope that helps! Enjoy exploring the starry heavens. :)

klauli29178 on November 04, 2018:

It was good but, it didn't have enough facts for what you can see without the telescope.

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on October 11, 2018:

Hi Shelley,

Thanks for your comment. I love looking up at the night sky although I recognize that for many folks that's not possible these days without making a special effort because we have so much light pollution.

When we look up at the night sky, not only do we see a pattern of stars that our ancient ancestors would struggle to recognize, but because of the time it takes light to travel such distances, we are looking back in time to the universe as it was billions of years ago. Many of the stars we see no longer exist.

I'm glad you learned something new!

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 10, 2018:

I've never been able to figure out how people look up at the mass of stars and see patterns like the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and other constellations. And reading this, now I know that the shapes of the constellations gradually change.