Astronomical Misconceptions


1)      From Gary Meibaum, Luling, Louisiana:

Why is the moon bigger on the horizon?

We are closer to the sun in summer, that's why it is hot.

Somehow the shadow of the Earth makes the moon phases.

The idea that we have had men on other planets and it is easy to get to the


Who made up the constellations?

Astrology is real!


2)      From Claudio Veliz:

Why keep financing the space program when the shuttle has already gone to galaxies...and stuff..?'

The sun orbits the earth (1/3rd of all American women believe this - true).

NASA consumes 34% of the US Federal Annual Budget.

Aliens are consulting to the US Government on advanced technology.

Astrology is a legitimate way to predict the future.

A telescope is better if more powerful....whatever 'powerful' means.

All telescopes tube assemblies extend well beyond the dome slot.

The longer the telescope tube is, the more powerful...whatever 'powerful' means.

An observatory and a planetarium are roughly the same thing.

Science is just another way of seeing things, like religion, mysticism, creationism, voodoo...etc.

There is no other life anywhere in the universe.

The universe is filled with life.

Explosions are audible in space.

There's no difference between a meteor, meteoroid and meteorite, or whatever...

Communications in space are instantaneous....even between distant planetary systems.

NASA faked all the moon missions.

All aliens speak English.

All planetary atmospheres are roughly equal to 1Kg/sq.m. (14lbs./

All planetary atmospheres are determined to be breathable shortly after landing.

Radiation is not a problem in space, because humans haven't created it out there yet.

Comets streak across the sky in seconds.

Astronomy through a telescope is possible on an overcast night.

Best time to look at the sky at night is during a full moon.

Galaxies and solar systems are the same thing.

Planets and stars are the same thing.


3)      From Ken Brandt, Robeson Planetarium:

Red=hot (or hottest); whether it be planets (i.e., Mars) or stars

Other bodies (such as the moon, Mars or Titan) not having gravity


4)      From Neil Comings (suggested by Ole Knudsen):


5)      From Mike Murray, Clark Planetarium:

The Moon appears larger on the horizon than it does overhead.

The Moon shows the same face to Earth and thus that means it does not rotate.

A Black Hole can eventually suck in everything (I like to use the example of

"What would happen to the Earth's orbit if the Sun were turned into a Black Hole?"  The answer is "Nothing!  The mass of the Sun hasn't changed," etc.

It's not safe to look at a solar eclipse during the moments of totality.

The sun will eventually blow up.

That "solar system," "galaxy" and "universe" all basically mean the same thing.


6)      From Jason Davis, Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Blackholes are not giant celestial vacuum cleaners...e.g. You can orbit a blackhole without falling in

The Big Bang a.Can't be visualized from the outside, b. Was not an "explosion" like a firework

The sun is nowhere near the center of the galaxy

All stars you see with your own eyes are IN the milkyway


7)      From Nilakshi Veerabathina, Atlanta (dome-l digest 1137)

The very common misconception that I found is about telescopes. Most ofthe people think that through a telescope the heavenly objects look really

big as telescope bring the objects really closer.


I still remember this incident:


One of our friends, who was an electronic engineer in our observatory, had never seen through the telescope because his job was to maintain all the

computers and other electronic equipments in day time and, so, he never visited the observatory in the night. When he got married, he made a special

nighttime visit with his new bride (she was an engineer too). He was very excited about the place he was working and he wanted to see the stars

through the telescope with his wife. After looking the stars and planets he was very disappointed and terribly mad on us as he had thought that planets

would appear at least as big as a watermelon and stars as big as at least an orange.


I was actively involved in outreach programs of the State observatory (its new name is ARIES). During my telescope duty, I found many people

disregarding of their educational status/knowledge has the same expectation or the misconception before looking through the telescope. Later on, in my

brief introduction about telescope and stars, I started adding the part that how big stars, planets and other galaxies look through a telescope and why.

I found this method of mine very successful, though.mmm, I still get the question from the visitors of all ages (here in USA and back in India), "can

we see the flag on the moon that Apollo astronauts hung." ..Ha-ha-ha.


8)      From Bing Quock, California Academy of Sciences, San Francsico (dome-l digest 1131)

On other misconceptions, many people still confuse a solar system with a galaxy, and just last week I got a phone call from a

woman who asked about solar flares, because she'd had this buzzing in her ear, and she'd just heard on the news that an X-class flare had occurred.


9)      From Bob Martino, Tucson (dome-l digest 1127)

The SINGLE greatest astronomical misconception has got to be the old "There is no gravity in space" problem. It also relates to various astronauts on the Moon misconceptions ("They can walk because they are wearing heavy boots").


I remember one "Top 10 List" on the Dave Letterman show a year or two (or four) ago, which was something about how a particular tennis tournament would be different if it were held on the Moon. (Who makes these topics up, anyway?) The number 1 difference was, "Floatin' Trophies!" It took me a few

minutes to figure out what the heck Dave was talking about.


Going back many years, a little while after the first NASA Teacher in Space was killed in the first shuttle disaster, I got my hands on a transcript of the "lesson" she was going to teach while in orbit. The very first sentence out of her mouth was supposed to be, "There is very little gravity in space." (!!!!!) And THIS was written by people at NASA!!!


BTW, it's easy to do this calculation yourself: What would be the gravitational acceleration felt if you were standing on a tower 200 miles tall (about the altitude of most shuttle flights). The answer is very close to 90% of the acceleration felt when standing on the Earth's surface. When I'm in a particularly nasty mood (like tonight), I like to say that Challenger was destroyed by the Gods of Physics before the crew could commit Physics Blasphemy.


I strongly believe that NASA's use of the term "microgravity" is a big contributor to the endurance of this particular myth. I much prefer the term used in the early days of spaceflight, "free fall." It is technically very accurate and it strongly implies the actual physical process that is responsible for the observed effects.


10)   From Steve Fentress, Strasenburgh Planetarium, Rochester NY (dome-l digest 1127)

About the gravity/atmosphere thing: maybe it's natural to confuse gravity and atmosphere, because they are two of the big factors that make a world as we perceive it. It's not necessarily easy to understand that you can pretty much go beyond one but not the other. And the physics of free fall (in orbit) is not intuitive.


I enjoyed the dialogue about the hollow earth reported by gwhastings, because I had almost exactly that same conversation with a child this spring.


Other misconceptions - or, let's say, problems - I've encountered:


- That there is a center from which the universe is expanding. (Here's the place for the classic overhead-projector demo with dots.)


- That if we looked in the correct direction with a powerful enough telescope, i.e. Hubble, we might see this center


- That this center might contain a black hole


- That far-apart galaxies violate special relativity by receding from each other faster than the speed of light


- That scientists really don't know what they're talking about because they keep revising their numbers. (Therefore, the logic continues, my idea is as good as anything cooked up by those pompous scientists, and I can think up my ideas without going through all that math!)


And, lest we think that socioeconomic status guarantees anything -- once I gave a solar system slide show at one of the wealthiest elementary schools in our area. Afterward, a little girl came up and said, "It's important to learn about space because it teaches us about our heritage. For instance, the sphinx on Mars is part of our heritage."


11)   From Suhas Gurjar (dome-l digest 1127)

The biggest misconception amongst amateur astronomers is " I know astronmy because I am member of some amateur astronomy association".


Few other:

Andromeda galexy is the nearest galexy to us.


Moon doesn't rotate around itself, thats why we see always the same face of moon.

Nearest star to us is alfa centaury.

Rainbow is round because Sun is round.


Do you know in Greenwich Observatory, the one of the guiding star (I do not rememebr now - which) from Ursa Major is  shown as pole star. This was in

October 2002, when I visited. I hope they must have corrected it by now (I wrote to the observatory regarding few months back).


12)   From Ken Brandt, Robeson Planetarium & Science Center (dome-l digest 1125)

For most adults, the north star is the only one they know! (My obvious statement of the week)  Including, btw, our own star... What I do for that one is have the children in my audiences look at the stars on the dome and pick one...then I identify the north star, and point out its relative dimness! One thing too I am learning is that these misconceptions are persistent!  I went into great detail about the moon's gravity (and the fact that there is some), and invariably get a response when I ask, "so why is Buzz Aldrin all dressed up in that fancy suit?"; " help hold him down since there's no gravity...", etc.   AEIGH!!!!   Fortunately for all concerned, someone in the audience usually corrects the infractor before I can get that far...


13)   From Grant Nicholson, Canberra Planetarium, Australia (dome-l digest 1125)

One misconception I have come across a number of times is usually phrased as the question: If the moon has no atmosphere, does it still have gravity?


14)   From gwhastings (dome-l digest 1125)

I doubt that I'm the only one, but nobody else has mentioned this strange misconception that I encountered infrequently, but with some regularity

once or twice each year.  ...variations on the theme: "WHEN ASTRONAUTS GO INTO SPACE, NOW DO THEY GET OUT?" You mean when they put on their spacesuits to work outside the spaceship/spacestation?

     "NO, HOW DOES THE SPACESHIP GET OUT OF THE EARTH?" You mean out of the Earth's atmsophere?


I have never really been able to reconstruct in my own mind this particular view of the universe, but I have fairly often had to explain that

we live on the OUTSIDE of the Earth, on the OUTSIDE surface of a big ball, that we are held on the ball by gravity. Then of course the corollary assertion that UP just means AWAY from the Earth, and DWON means TOWARD the Earth. That concept seems to amaze an amazing number of students!


15)   From Mike Miller, Glenfield Planetarium, Montclair, NJ (dome-l digest 1125)

that astronauts float because there's no gravity! (Who teaches free fall through a gravity field?)

the dark side of the moon - see what error a rockn'roll song can do! (better keep them rockers away from politics and history!)

that the speed of light is FAST - try driving a remote controlled rover on Mars and see how slow light is!

that the Moon orbits the Earth - look at them from high above...the moon always travels concave to the sun: How is THAT an orbit of Earth?  How about

Bi-nary planet system!

that we have not discovered Intelligent Civilizations in Space...where do you think WE are? (All MY children were born in Space!)

that parallel lines NEVER meet - in Space they do! Great circles meet at the poles of Earth for example...

that Triangels have 180 degrees - not in Space, where two longitude lines make 180 degrees with the equator, and the included angle at the pole surpasses 180!

That earth is our PERMANENT home - we better start looking to relocate soon before the sun brightens even 1%, or, when the Andromeda moves in on =

This side of the Milky Way.

Finally, that Venus is the only planet with a FEMALE name!


16)   From Jane Hastings (dome-l digest 1124)

I hope you will figure out a way to tell people that the common drawing of a star INSIDE the curvature of a crescent moon is impossible.  The relative distances to things would be a good topic.  

Why Venus looks so bright, when Jupiter is the largest planet, etc.

What causes the phases of the moon.   "Phases of the moon caused by the shadow of the earth" is a common misconception( I taught about the phases and always  asked the students what they thought)  Other ideas they had:  Phases of the moon caused b/c "other side of the earth (?)"

Lightyear is not a measure of time

Seasons:  anything you can do here would be very good; probably the most common misconception is that the earth is closer to the sun in summer.  ( Very few people travel to the opposite earth hemisphere to experience the "flipflop" of the seasons elsewhere on earth.)  I think it might be interesting to explain some sideline features of the seasons:  the latitudinal change in the daylight/darkness ratio at different seasons as you move from  equator to the poles.  For example, you could contrast Florida with Canada or Alaska in that way.


17)   From Wilgus Burton, Garland Texas (dome-l digest 1124)

A few years back when I worked for another institution in the Dallas Ft. Worth Metroplex, I did a program for a group of 2nd grades from a Dallas ISD school.  The program was about the Earth and Moon system.  It included some video clips of Astronauts from Apollo 16 & 17 driving on the Moon in the

Lunar Rover.  At the end of the program, one of the 2nd grade Teachers asked me "What would have happened if the Astronauts drove off the edge of the



And, not long after that in May 1994, when the big Solar Eclipse was about to occur, we had worked up some activities and safe solar viewing stations outside.  The week of the eclipse happened to have been the week of the statewide scholastic testing.  One Teacher, yes from Dallas ISD, called me and wanted to know if we could reschedule the eclipse for the weekend because of the testing

I'm sure there are others that have run across situations like this. Even though this topic has been on Dome-L before, I would still like to read more.


18)   From Jean Philpott, Buhl Planetarium & Observatory, Pittsburgh (dome-l digest 1124)

I'm continually surprised by the number of people in an audience who believe the North Star is the brightest star in the sky!


19)   From Pedro Saizar, PhD (dome-l digest 1124)

a correction to one of my comments on astronomical misconceptions.


I said "date started at noon before 1925". Don Barry (thank you!!) was kind enough to email and say that my statement was probably wrong. It certainly

was. The date started at noon, not in civil calendars, but in navigational and astronomical calendars. Both were joined in 1925 to start at midnight.


20)   From James Beaber (dome-l digest 1124)

Just a few more to add:

The planetarium dome opens up to reveal the night sky.  Even during the daytime.

The star projector is a telescope.

The sun is the brightest, largest, hottest star in the universe.

We've landed astronauts on Mars.

We've photographed the entire Milky Way (apparently coming from  comments saying, 'this is what the Milky Way would look like').

Do stars really fall?  (This crops up once every three years from adults who want to know the truth.)

We are closer to the sun in the summer, farther away in the winter.

The full moon really does make things weird (I've had a secret service agent, ER doctors, nurses, EMT's, policemen and firemen in class all swear this is true).

If you jump into a rocket and head into outer space, you'll probably run into a planet almost immediately.  You have to really watch out going through the asteroid belt.

We've sent rockets to other stars.

Blue stars are cooler (temperature) than red stars.

The sun will someday blow up.

From the ashes of the sun's destruction, a new star and earth will form.

You can travel through black holes.

These are misperceptions that have cropped up mainly in older (fifth to sixth grade) and college q and a sessions.


21)   From Pedro Saizar, PhD (dome-l digest 1123)

A few interesting ones I found in m classes:

There is no gravity in space, and its variation: astronauts float because there is no gravity.

A hard time recognizing the fact that you cannot take a picture of our Galaxy from the outside.

Many students believe the atmospheric temperature goes down with altitude, although many wonder why it shouldn't go up as you are getting closer

to the Sun.

Mercury should be hotter than Venus because it is closer to the Sun.

Galileo discovered the telescope

The Universe started with: a Big Band and a Big Ban (not really a misconception, but did appear in tests)

Last week a student asked on his own: why do we feel the heat from the Sun if the space in between is empty? He had studied radiation last year.

Two things that produce a big shock to students when they hear it:

-that we believed the Sun was at teh center of the Universe until early 20th Century

-that the date changed at midday until 1925 or so.

Hope there is at least an original one here, but I very much doubt it.


22)   From Christine Shupla, Arizona Science Center, Phoenix (dome-l digest 1123)

I imagine you'll have most of the ones we're familiar with; here's one of my (ever-growing) lists:

* confusion on the nature of a gas giant

* Mars--belief that it is hot (red) and that it is as large as the Earth

* confusion on the definition of Solar System (does not include other stars)

* seasons

* the North Star is not the brightest star in the sky

* an asteroid is not the same thing as a meteor

* the other objects that have been discovered are not new "planets" going around our Sun (Sedna, for instance)but smaller objects or planets going around other stars

* continuing belief in evidence for a Planet X

* black holes do not "suck up everything" and pose a danger to the rest of the galaxy (they do not have an infinite gravitational pull, merely infinite density)

* confusion on the nature of gravity

* confusion on the definition of "rotation" and "revolution" (some people have heard that Venus rotates backwards and believe that it orbits the Sun

in the opposite direction; others think that the Earth takes a day to go around the Sun)

* mistaken belief in a "dark side" of the Moon

* confusion between new moon and a lunar eclipse

One that took me by surprise a number of years ago was the extent of the misconceptions about gravity; two college students wrote on a final exam

that Venus doesn't have any gravity because it doesn't rotate fast enough. I've since learned that most people do not understand that gravity is related to mass, and is not related to distance from the Earth, to magnetism, etc.  A class of students will faithfully tell you that the planets orbit the Sun because of gravity, but when you ask them if the Sun has gravity, they'll say it does not.


23)   From James Rusk, Russell Planetarium, Mesquite TX

I put the top ten I get from students on the web:


24)   From Dave Hostetter, Lafayette LA

The first misconceptions that popped into my mind involve the moon.  Many people -- kids and adults -- think there is a side of the

moon that is always dark.  The idea of a near side and far side surprises them, but seems to be related in their minds to a "dark side

of the moon."


People have trouble understanding that the moon rotates BUT we see only one side.  When I demonstrate to them by rotating, and then

rotating once while walking around something representing the earth, they see it immediately, but until that happens it seems

unfathomable to them.


I get many questions about why we can see the moon in daylight.  Many people are surprised when they see that, and are even more

surprised to discover it has been happening all their lives and they didn't notice!


About once a month an elementary school kid asks me why the moon seems to follow them when they walk.  The question always draws a lot

of comment from others in the class who realize they wonder about that, too.  It's a tough topic to explain in a question and answer

session because some of the concepts used to explain it are fairly sophisticated.


Oh -- one more related to Hubble and space flight: perhaps most people believe things are weightless in orbit because there is no

gravity in space.  At the same time, when asked why a spacecraft doesn't go zipping away from Earth and never come back, they will

answer, "Earth's gravity!"  A discussion of the basic physics of orbits might be good, as the "no gravity in space" myth has been

repeated in elementary and middle school texts for many years.


Another one is that the sun and stars are on fire.


I'll let you know if I think of others!  I'm sure you'll get a lot of responses.  "Things everyone knows about astronomy that are

wrong" could be a full-length star show!


25)   From Marni Berendson, Astronomical Society of the Pacific

I did research among amateur astronomers who do outreach last summer.  It was for my masters in astronomy.  One of the open-ended questions I asked in the survey was "Please identify a few astronomy misconceptions you have come across in your outreach with the public".  Of 1,244 completed surveys, 636 of the respondents answered this question.


I have attached an Excel spreadsheet that categorizes the answers.  I hope this is of use to you! (see John Stoke for spreadsheet)