Are Those Planets, or Are Those Stars?

One night back when I was about 7 years old, I was sitting next to my tío (uncle) Salvador. We were looking out through a window in my home at the night sky. He was talking with me about the stars and planets. Something in that night sky caught my attention. It was a bright red object. I pointed toward it and asked him “Tío, is that a planet or is that a star?”

He looked down at me and smiled. He placed his hand on my shoulder in a way that made me feel special. But I looked up and very distinctly noticed a tear in his eye. I was perplexed. I didn’t understand that tear until some thirty-two years later.

Silhouette father and son viewing planets and stars
From Pixabay, via

The Ignition of Curiosity

But meanwhile, he did answer my question. He explained to me that what we were seeing was the planet Mars; that someday soon, mankind would land on the moon and that possibly in my lifetime we would set foot on distant planets. His answer to my question ignited my curiosity. Little did I realize the tremendous impact of that moment in my life.

As a child, I would spend hours looking up at the night sky learning the names of stars, constellations, and planets with the help of my star maps. I didn’t understand until years later what an intimate relationship we all share with those thousands of points of light.

Silhouette father and daughter viewing planets and stars
From Comstock, Photo Images, via

Questions Pass Down Through Generations

Fast-forwarding more than two decades, I would often find myself talking with my then-four-year-old daughter about the cosmos. Sometimes we would look up at the moon and sing songs to it. I’ll never forget one particular starry night when I was holding her in my arms as I took her out of the house to walk over to the car on the street. Suddenly, I distinctly felt the hand of my tío Salvador resting reassuringly on my shoulder. I almost looked up to greet him, but then remembered that he was no longer with us. 

Then…I finally understood that tear in his eye some thirty-two years earlier, only now the tear was in my eye. It was a tear of joy—the joy of watching a child take those first, brave, halting steps on their lifetime quest for answers driven by curiosity. I experienced that overwhelming sense of happiness that my uncle must have felt, but this time it was my child thrusting her little finger toward the heavens and asked me in her little-girl voice, “Daddy, are those planets or are those stars?”

The original version of this column was written by me and published in a Ventura County newsletter,, on March 9, 2017.

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Planets and stars in dark sky