Light Speed Animation

Article written: 19 Nov , 2010
Updated: 20 Jan , 2016
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Ever wonder what it would be like to be a particle of light starting out at some distant astronomical object and then zoom (at light speed, of course) towards Earth and wind up being seen by hoards of Earthlings out looking at the stars at night? This video from ESA is an animation (and artist’s impression) showing just that. Enjoy the ride!

Credit: ESA/Hubble (M. Kornmesser & L. L. Christensen)

19 Responses

  1. Tim McDaniel says

    I’m at the office and can’t watch the animation. If you NAIVELY apply the usual sqrt(1-v^2/c^2) factor, no time should pass on the photon. So is the artist’s impression a video that is 0 seconds long consisting of a flash that shows the original stellar surface atom and the impact on an atom in a retina simultaneously? Or am I being, as usual, too naive?

  2. Meate says

    I guess I wasn’t impressed. It seems to be a partially complete animation, and I’m not sure how the particle of light slowed down considerably when it approached the Earth.

  3. Suphus says

    The video takes 24 seconds. Does the journey start nearby? Within the orbit of Mars? Mars is 20 lightminutes away according to WolframAlpha.

  4. kammueller says

    Appears that the video starts at a star somewhere within the Galaxy. Kind of has the Star Trek feel, just with a better background. Can’t be in the reference frame of the photon since, as Tim points out, there would be no video. Can’t be in the Earth’s Frame of reference since the video would be a minimum of 4 years long.

    Obviously an artists impression, but I was not impressed either. No idea if this is supposed to be showing some real effect or if it is just made up out of whole cloth and just set against a cool background. I will say the background looks nice.

  5. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    Tim McDaniel has the physics best. There is no proper interval or time for a photon. So there is no “frame” from which one would observe the world.


  6. Olaf says


    Actually it means time dilation of an object at near light-speed not a photon itself because a photon would be there in 0 seconds. The object travelled many Earth years seen from Earth but it’s clock would only have passed 20 seconds.

    But I am missing the blue shift and warping of the complete surround view into a tiny dot in the direction of the movement.

  7. BeckyWS says

    This makes me wish more than ever that someone who knows physics and good film-making would have a crack at Tau Zero.

  8. Member
    DrNothing says

    This is the 1st of what I would consider, ‘dumb’ posts I’ve ever seen on this site… Amateur animation, boring and hard to tell what/where is happening.

  9. Uncle Fred says

    Not impressed. Maybe the view from a ship would make for sense?

  10. AndyInv says

    ..and it’s ‘hordes’, not ‘hoards’.

  11. n2weird says

    Sorry I missed it, I was too busy looking for the rearview mirror.
    Good brakes, though!

  12. tareece says

    Ahhhh, some untold thousands, nah, millions of tax $$$ went into this 24 sec joy ride and fellow astro-lovers hate it…

    Wasted 24 seconds….. “Damnit Jim, I’m not a miracle worker!”

  13. SteveZodiac says

    you have a good point especially when you can do this any time by downloading Celestia (all free). CTRL+H takes you to the surface of the sun. Press 3 to select Earth then “c” to centre it, Ctrl+K if you want to see where it is, then move off at light speed by pressing F4. Then get very bored, go and make a cup of tea/coffee and return to see just how slow light is compared to the size of the universe. Oh, and you need to keep centreing earth on the way of course.

  14. SteveZodiac says

    sorry that should be H andthen Ctrl+G to go to the surface of the sun. Unless you are sharp you will miss Earth travelling sround at 108000 km/h which means the light you see from the sun has actually come out the side not the bit facing us, odd thought.

  15. HolyAvengerOne says

    Cute. Nothing more, nothing less.

  16. The correct spelling is neither “hordes” or “hoards” but rather “a”, since a single particle will only hit one retina.

    The movie, on the other hand, will be seen by hordes of befuddled taxpayers.

  17. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    The idea of riding on a frame moving near the speed of light might make sense for an observer on the same frame as a cosmic ray particle. Of course there are various optical effects such as the Terrell rotation. The video clip here is a pretty accurate depiction of these special relativistic effects, depicted according to a terrestrial scene with light slowed down in this simulation


  18. jimhenson says

    If a spaceship travels at or near light speed, would the astronauts be at the mercy of anything that wanted to get them, and interrupt their journey?

  19. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    If you are travelling at close to the speed of light with a gamma = 1/sqrt{1 – (v/c)^2} and you hit a small piece of material with a mass m, the amount of energy which could be released by such a collision is (gamma- 1)mc^2, If you are travelling half the speed of light then gamma = 1.155, the energy released by a collision with one gram of matter is about 1.03e^{20} erg = 1.03e^{12}j. This is equal to 3.2e4 tons of TNT equivalent explosive energy, or comparable to a small nuclear bomb.


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