Updated: December 30, 2015 3:52 PM ET | Originally published: July 1, 2015 10:57 AM EDT

To you and me, watching fireworks is an age-old pastime best spent with people you love. But to astronomers, seeing those beautiful colors light up the night sky—like they will across the world on New Year’s Eve—means something entirely different.

The chemistry that enables people to see the array of colors during a fireworks show, is the same chemistry that allows astronomers to see stars and planets hundreds of light years away.

Watch materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez explain how this is possible.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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