What is Causing the Zig Zagging of Stars in the Night Sky?

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In summary, the conversation revolved around the observation of stars appearing to zig zag in the sky. The initial thought was that it could be drones, but after further observation and discussion, it was concluded that it was most likely an optical illusion caused by eye-tracking or atmospheric effects. The individual is seeking an explanation for the phenomenon and is open to considering other theories.
  • #1
a1971oneway
At midnight on may 12 2020 I saw what at first I thought was a drone zig zagging around in one spot in the sky. I looked outside at it again about ten minutes later it was doing the same thing in the same general area. I also noticed another star doing the same thing in a different part of the sky. I went to sleep thinking I saw ufos. I woke at 4 am and went and looked again and every star in the sky was zig zagging. May 13 I went outside just after dark and every star in the sky was doing it again. I was using my naked eyes so can’t blame telescope. This went on for hours so not possible for drone to be up that long. I’m sure it’s something atmospheric but would love an explanation
 
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  • #2
a1971oneway said:
At midnight on may 12 2020 I saw what at first I thought was a drone zig zagging around in one spot in the sky. I looked outside at it again about ten minutes later it was doing the same thing in the same general area. I also noticed another star doing the same thing in a different part of the sky. I went to sleep thinking I saw ufos. I woke at 4 am and went and looked again and every star in the sky was zig zagging. May 13 I went outside just after dark and every star in the sky was doing it again. I was using my naked eyes so can’t blame telescope. This went on for hours so not possible for drone to be up that long. I’m sure it’s something atmospheric but would love an explanation
Welcome to PF!

Stars don't zig zag. How far would you say they were moving? Like, if you hold up your thumb at arms length would they be visible jumping back and forth from one side to the other? Try it...

At what frequency was the zig zagging? Was it partly cloudy outside?

My suspicion is that this is an eye-tracking problem. At most, atmospheric turbulence can make stars seem to dance a little, but it is random motion and very small.
 
  • #3
russ_watters said:
Welcome to PF!

Stars don't zig zag. How far would you say they were moving? Like, if you hold up your thumb at arms length would they be visible jumping back and forth from one side to the other? Try it...

At what frequency was the zig zagging? Was it partly cloudy outside?

My suspicion is that this is an eye-tracking problem. At most, atmospheric turbulence can make stars seem to dance a little, but it is random motion and very small.
First night was clear. The brightest ones would cover the space of my thumb. There were 5 of us that seen same thing. I’m thinking it was refraction or some type of temp inversion maybe
 
  • #4
a1971oneway said:
every star in the sky was doing it again
russ_watters said:
My suspicion is that this is an eye-tracking problem.
Me too. From an earlier similar star movement thread:

https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/dancing-star.975364/post-6212915

berkeman said:
The zig-zag motion was likely a common optical illusion, where your eye is making small motions and that appears to make the object / light move slightly. I first noticed this illusion when I was watching a small ant walk back and forth in small movements on a bland piece of concrete. There were no real optical reference points on the concrete to help me judge the small movements. After a while, I reached down to touch the ant, and discovered it was a small piece of leaf, not an ant. Since small pieces of leaves can't walk around in little zig-zag motions, it was apparent that my eyes were fooling me.

I did some Google searching just now to try to find a reference for this optical illusion, but mostly found other pattern-dependent visual motion illusions. I'll keep searching to hopefully find a name for this small zig-zag motion illusion (where there are not any good visual references near the object)...

Hope that helps.

And the helpful reply with a link to the visual effect:
JCMacaw said:
 
  • #5
berkeman said:
Me too. From an earlier similar star movement thread:

https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/dancing-star.975364/post-6212915
And the helpful reply with a link to the visual effect:
When I line my view of the star up with the edge of the roof the star jumps in and out of view. Also it started out being just the brightest stars doing it but by the end of the first night it was all of them. The second night it started out with all of them doing it. It’s not something I’m seeing from stareing at them. You can see it at first glance. It draws your eyes to the movement.
 
  • #6
berkeman said:
Me too. From an earlier similar star movement thread:

https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/dancing-star.975364/post-6212915
And the helpful reply with a link to the visual effect:
This is not an eye tracking problem. It has to be an atmospheric phenomenon. Movement is fast and the stars I saw first to move were the brightest in the sky.
 
  • #7
Is there any answer you will accept other than the one you propose? And if not, why are you asking?
 
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  • #8
Vanadium 50 said:
Is there any answer you will accept other than the one you propose? And if not, why are you asking?
An answer that doesn’t involve my eyes being the problem. You guys are the astronomers. I just want to know what could be going on in our atmosphere now that I’ve never seen in the past. 2 nights in a row I saw stars do things I’ve never seen them do before and I’m curious if something has changed in our atmosphere and these “zig-zag” stars are going to be the new nor al
Vanadium 50 said:
Is there any answer you will accept other than the one you propose? And if not, why are you asking?
and would you take the first theory offered up and consider it gospel?
 
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  • #9
a1971oneway said:
An answer that doesn’t involve my eyes being the problem.
Do you have access to a telescope on a stable mount?

BTW, is there a heat source under the area where you are seeing the stars move unexpectedly? You will get a little twinkling from normal atmospherics, but if you have a heat vent under the direction that you are looking at these stars, that will cause all kinds of apparent movement, right?
 
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  • #10
There is no phenomenon that we know of that would cause the stars to do what you are claiming, which is why people keep coming back to it being your eyes. Perhaps you could try getting access to a video camera and taking a movie of the phenomenon. Unless you have some hard evidence, you will never be able to convince people that it is a real phenomenon.
 
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  • #11
a1971oneway said:
This is not an eye tracking problem. It has to be an atmospheric phenomenon. Movement is fast and the stars I saw first to move were the brightest in the sky.
Eye movements can be very fast:
Saccades are one of the fastest movements produced by the human body (blinks may reach even higher peak velocities). The peak angular speed of the eye during a saccade reaches up to 900°/s in humans; in some monkeys, peak speed can reach 1000°/s.[6] Saccades to an unexpected stimulus normally take about 200 milliseconds (ms) to initiate, and then last from about 20–200 ms, depending on their amplitude (20–30 ms is typical in language reading). Under certain laboratory circumstances, the latency of, or reaction time to, saccade production can be cut nearly in half (express saccades). These saccades are generated by a neuronal mechanism that bypasses time-consuming circuits and activates the eye muscles more directly.[7][8]

These movements involve both eyes moving simultaneously and in concert.
Clear skies provide a lack of of stable independent landmarks for the brain to plot location.
Perceptual mechanisms (in the eye/brain) can be affected by both drugs (legal and not) and physiological states. These could accentuate small effects that might not otherwise be noticed.
I also believe that perceptual mechanisms can be learned and trained. For example, perceiving 3-D pictures from pairs photo pairs of from pairs of dot clouds, or visual illusions that once scene are difficult to not see.

Observations you might consider in making comparisons between the atmospheric and perceptual explanations:
  • Is this effect seen throughout the whole sky or is it in a localized area. This would be expected from the eye movement explanation, but seems (to me) like a localized atmospheric explanation would be limited in its spatial extent.
  • Are all the zig-zag movements in the same directions at the same time. This would be expected from the eye movement explanation, but seems (to me) like an atmospheric explanation would localized.
  • I like the idea of making a video. This would eliminate eye movements if it still showed the zig-zagging (lots of g's in that word).
 
  • #12
OMG, i totally believe you sense I had the same thing happen to me a few nights ago on sunday jan 24th. It was a bright star over staten island, ny and then it moved and zig zagged stop and slightly moved and zig zagged again. It was like it knew I was looking at it!
 
  • #13
Early this morning around 4am in Minnesota, I witnessed the same event as described in this forum. The sky was very clear(much clearer than most nights) I could see deep into space. I noticed a formation of 3 bright stars from the east horizon at first they appeared fixed and I wondered if it was a new constellation or maybe a few of our planetary neighbors were in view. But, to my surprise, the 3 stars began moving in unison as if they were orbiting around a massive object in the center of the 3 bright lights.

Then they dimmed out and would become bright again and then dim, bright, dim, bright for as long as I was watching the sky this appeared to happen. Their formation was short lived as they eventually went in separate directions but were still in some sort of elliptical orbit covering a large distance in the sky very rapidly and once they would reach a particular part of the sky they would change direction and zoom very quickly back and forth.

As I looked around towards the north and to the west, the stars appeared normal as usual and none were in motion. But once I looked back to the east, every star in sight was moving in the same sort of bizarre orbiting motion. Almost like each star was making each other move by their movement towards one another.

I couldn’t believe my eyes and I am an avid star gazer and have seen some anomalies in the past, but never anything like this before. I became so uncertain I almost felt the need to call the sheriff to report what I was witnessing as maybe it was a ufo event or similar and I heard you are supposed to report such events. But I couldn’t quite put into words what it was I was witnessing because it was something I’ve never seen nor heard of before and how do you go about describing such a thing without sounding crazy?!

What would be the most logical explanation for such a “galactic dance”? Also I should point out that it was eerily quiet and I could hear an very faint hum that pulsed in intensity and was very steady and started to make me feel strange like my senses were all haywire and I couldn’t make sense of it. I have no health problems and can see perfectly at night and my hearing is pretty good too. Anyone else know what I’m talking about?
 
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  • #14
ariesman88 said:
Anyone else know what I’m talking about?
Clearly it was little green men.
 
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  • #15
ariesman88 said:
without sounding crazy?!
Paragraphs help. Seriously.

ariesman88 said:
have no health problems
You might want to have that looked into. If I were seeing things other do not, I'd be on the phone to my PCP.
 
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  • #16
Thread closed temporarily for Moderation...

Vanadium 50 said:
Paragraphs help. Seriously.
Yeah, I'll have to add some whitespace into that wall-of-text before I can read it figure out what they are saying. Lordy.
 
  • #17
It looks like this old thread is now a magnet for, um, posts that are not appropriate for PF standards. This thread will remain closed.
 
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Related to What is Causing the Zig Zagging of Stars in the Night Sky?

1. What does it mean when stars appear to zigzag in the night sky?

When stars appear to zigzag in the night sky, it is primarily due to atmospheric turbulence. Layers of the Earth's atmosphere at different temperatures and densities act like lenses or prisms, bending the path of the light coming from the star as it passes through. This phenomenon, known as atmospheric scintillation, causes stars to appear as if they are twinkling or moving erratically.

2. Are there any astronomical objects or phenomena that cause stars to move in a zigzag pattern?

No astronomical objects or phenomena cause stars themselves to move in a zigzag pattern. The perceived movement is due to the Earth's atmosphere. However, certain objects like satellites, aircraft, or meteors can move across the sky in various patterns, which might sometimes be mistaken for stars due to their point-like appearance and brightness.

3. Can the zigzagging of stars be observed everywhere on Earth?

The zigzagging or twinkling of stars caused by atmospheric scintillation can be observed from anywhere on Earth, although it is more pronounced when looking at stars near the horizon rather than those directly overhead. This is because looking towards the horizon means looking through more atmosphere, which increases the effect of atmospheric distortion.

4. Does the zigzagging of stars have any impact on astronomical observations?

Yes, the zigzagging or twinkling of stars can significantly impact astronomical observations, particularly those made with optical telescopes from the ground. This atmospheric distortion can limit the clarity and sharpness of astronomical images. To mitigate this, astronomers use adaptive optics technology in telescopes, or place telescopes in space, above the Earth's atmosphere, as with the Hubble Space Telescope.

5. How can I differentiate between a star and other celestial objects if they all appear to zigzag?

To differentiate between stars and other celestial objects like planets or satellites, observe their behavior over time. Stars and planets do not drastically change their path in the sky over short periods, whereas satellites, aircraft, and shooting stars move more noticeably. Additionally, planets do not twinkle as much as stars because they are closer to Earth and appear as small disks rather than points of light.

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