I was recently hired to give a stargazing and telescope experience at a private dinner party, and the group became fascinated with non-starry objects in the sky. There are so many interesting things to see besides stars, but most people don’t know the difference between an airplane, a satellite, or some other object.



Let’s start with planets. Planets look just like stars in the sky, but once you get to know the sky a little more, you’ll notice that some of these celestial objects change their position relative to the stars around them. These are planets.


Do you have a stargazing app on your smartphone? Download any free one and use it to identify the planets. It’s a great way to learn the night sky, including constellations, bright stars, and planets. I tend to use SkyView Lite the most, but if you already have a free stargazing app, I’m sure it will do the job just as well.



I frequently get this question: how do you know if something is an airplane? Sometimes it’s easy and obvious for everyone. You can see the colored lights blinking on it, and it’s moving. You might even hear its engines if it’s close enough.


But sometimes airplanes are a bit farther away, and sometimes they look like they’re not moving at night. If you’re unsure, compare its location to something else, like a prominent star or a silhouette of a tree. Then wait for a couple of minutes. If the plane is moving directly toward you, it can look like it’s not moving for a bit. But it won’t take more than two or three minutes to realize that it has moved and it’s a plane, not a star or planet.


Take your airplane tracking a bit farther to find out where the plane overhead came from and where it’s going with the FlightAware Flight Tracker.



How can you tell the difference between an airplane and a satellite? Satellites are much smaller. They’re relatively bright but small, moving fast across the sky. And they don’t blink. Then, they seem to vanish into the night sky. That’s because you saw it while it was still illuminated by the sun and then saw it zoom into Earth’s shadow.


If you’re interested in tracking satellites, you can download the app Orbitrack. It’s one of the most powerful apps for this purpose.



When I was leading the stargazing experience at the dinner party recently, something went over the top of our heads that didn’t fit into any other category of what I usually see in the night sky. I told the guests I was 90% certain we had just seen the International Space Station go overhead. It was not an airplane because there were no blinking lights, and it moved too fast. It wasn’t a satellite because it was too big and bright. 


It’s fun to see the International Space Station fly overhead and to think that astronauts are living up there conducting science experiments. The ISS circles the Earth every 90 minutes, so that thing is hauling across the sky!


You can find out when the ISS will be flying over your location with the ISS Spotter app.



Another non-starry object you’re likely to see in the night sky is a shooting star. Of course, these aren’t stars but bits of space debris that enter our atmosphere and burn up. Most of the time, the entire bit burns to nothing. Sometimes, if it’s big enough, some parts of it might survive the trek through the atmosphere and land on the ground. When you see them in the sky as shooting stars, they’re called meteors. When you find a chunk of it on the ground, it’s called a meteorite, and they’re often worth some good money. You should check out my interview with the amazing Geoff Notkin, host of the TV show Meteorite Men, on episodes 19 and 20



And finally, there are comets. The best way to get information on seeing comets is to follow Space.com, Sky & Telescope, or NASA. Comets come and go. Some are visible to the naked eye, like NEOWISE in 2020. Some require binoculars or a telescope. Some will require you get help from a professional to find them because they’re nothing more than a fuzzy smudge.


So take some time to identify some non-starry objects in the night sky. Are there any visible planets? Identify some airplanes. If you stay out for at least 30 minutes, you’re bound to see at least one satellite. Watch until you can spot one. And it’s not unusual to see a meteor burning up, although you have to be looking in just the right direction at just the right time. You’ll have a better chance of seeing them during a meteor shower, especially if you try looking after midnight. You can subscribe to the Night Sky Tourist podcast to get a free download of my Things to See in the Night Sky in 2023 guide where I list all of the meteor showers for the year. 


NOTE: I do not receive compensation for any of the links I’ve shared for apps.