Sirius the Glitter-ball

 

A video of Sirius (the brightest star in the night sky) twinkling on the horizon, captured by Steve Brown @sjb_astro. Many people think they’re seeing a low altitude aircraft or UFO when they witness this.

This phenomenon occurs (to a lesser extent) with any bright star low on the horizon due to the vast amount of atmosphere you’re seeing it through. As stars gain elevation, and less atmosphere is between us and them, they shine more steadily, and views are hugely improved.

The difference in the amount of atmosphere you look through with elevation is very striking (as demonstrated in the sketch below). ¬†Particularly for faint deep sky objects like galaxies, high elevations makes a dramatic difference to the quality of visual or photographic images you’ll collect.

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How much atmosphere you look through with observing angle.  At the zenith (overhead) you look through over 2/3 less atmosphere than at the horizon.