How Long Would It Take To Travel To The Nearest Star?

We’ve all asked this question at some point in our lives: How long would it take to travel to the stars? Could it be within a person’s own lifetime, and could this kind of travel become the norm someday? There are many possible answers to this question – some very simple, others in the realms of science fiction. But coming up with a comprehensive answer means taking a lot of things into consideration.

Unfortunately, any realistic assessment is likely to produce answers that would totally discourage futurists and enthusiasts of interstellar travel. Like it or not, space is very large, and our technology is still very limited. But should we ever contemplate “leaving the nest”, we will have a range of options for getting to the nearest Solar Systems in our galaxy.

The nearest star to Earth is our Sun, which is a fairly “average” star in the Hertzsprung – Russell Diagram‘s “Main Sequence.” This means that it is highly stable, providing Earth with just the right type of sunlight for life to evolve on our planet. We know there are planets orbiting other stars near to our Solar System, and many of these stars are similar to our own.

In the future, should mankind wish to leave the Solar System, we’ll have a huge choice of stars we could travel to, and many could have the right conditions for life to thrive. But where would we go and how long would it take for us to get there? Just remember, this is all speculative and there is currently no benchmark for interstellar trips. That being said, here we go!

Credit: The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo (phl.upl.edu)
Over 2000 exoplanets have been identified, many of which are believed to be habitable. Credit: phl.upl.edu

Nearest Star:

As already noted, the closest star to our Solar System is Proxima Centauri, which is why it makes the most sense to plot an interstellar mission to this system first. As part of a triple star system called Alpha Centauri, Proxima is about 4.24 light years (or 1.3 parsecs) from Earth. Alpha Centauri is actually the brightest star of the three in the system – part of a closely orbiting binary 4.37 light years from Earth – whereas Proxima Centauri (the dimmest of the three) is an isolated red dwarf about 0.13 light years from the binary.

And while interstellar travel conjures up all kinds of visions of Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel, ranging from warp speed and wormholes to jump drives, such theories are either highly speculative (such as the Alcubierre Drive) or entirely the province of science fiction. In all likelihood, any deep space mission will likely take generations to get there, rather than a few days or in an instantaneous flash.

So, starting with one of the slowest forms of space travel, how long will it take to get to Proxima Centauri?

Current Methods:

The question of how long would it take to get somewhere in space is somewhat easier when dealing with existing technology and bodies within our Solar System. For instance, using the technology that powered the New Horizons mission – which consisted of 16 thrusters fueled with hydrazine monopropellant – reaching the Moon would take a mere 8 hours and 35 minutes.

On the other hand, there is the European Space Agency’s (ESA) SMART-1 mission, which took it’s time traveling to the Moon using the method of ionic propulsion. With this revolutionary technology, a variation of which has since been used by the Dawn spacecraft to reach Vesta, the SMART-1 mission took one year, one month and two weeks to reach the Moon.

So, from the speedy rocket-propelled spacecraft to the economical ion drive, we have a few options for getting around local space – plus we could use Jupiter or Saturn for a hefty gravitational slingshot. However, if we were to contemplate missions to somewhere a little more out of the way, we would have to scale up our technology and look at what’s really possible.

When we say possible methods, we are talking about those that involve existing technology, or those that do not yet exist, but are technically feasible. Some, as you will see, are time-honored and proven, while others are emerging or still on the board. In just about all cases though, they present a possible, but extremely time-consuming or expensive, scenario for getting to even the closest stars…

Ionic Propulsion:
Currently, the slowest form of propulsion, and the most fuel-efficient, is the ion engine. A few decades ago, ionic propulsion was considered to be the subject of science fiction. However, in recent years, the technology to support ion engines has moved from theory to practice in a big way. The ESA’s SMART-1 mission for example successfully completed its mission to the Moon after taking a 13 month spiral path from the Earth.

SMART-1 used solar powered ion thrusters, where electrical energy was harvested from its solar panels and used to power its Hall-effect thrusters. Only 82 kg of xenon propellant was used to propel SMART-1 to the Moon. 1 kg of xenon propellant provided a delta-v of 45 m/s. This is a highly efficient form of propulsion, but it is by no means fast.

Artist's concept of Dawn above Ceres around the time it was captured into orbit by the dwarf planet in early March. Since its arrival, the spacecraft turned around to point the blue glow of its ion engine in the opposite direction. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s concept of Dawn mission above Ceres. Since its arrival, the spacecraft turned around to point the blue glow of its ion engine in the opposite direction. Image credit: NASA/JPL

One of the first missions to use ion drive technology was the Deep Space 1 mission to Comet Borrelly that took place in 1998. DS1 also used a xenon-powered ion drive, consuming 81.5 kg of propellant. Over 20 months of thrusting, DS1 was managed to reach a velocity of 56,000 km/hr (35,000 miles/hr) during its flyby of the comet.

Ion thrusters are therefore more economical than rocket technology, as the thrust per unit mass of propellant (a.k.a. specific impulse) is far higher. But it takes a long time for ion thrusters to accelerate spacecraft to any great speeds, and the maximum velocity it can achieve is dependent on its fuel supply and how much electrical energy it can generate.

So if ionic propulsion were to be used for a mission to Proxima Centauri, the thrusters would need a huge source of energy production (i.e. nuclear power) and a large quantity of propellant (although still less than conventional rockets). But based on the assumption that a supply of 81.5 kg of xenon propellant translates into a maximum velocity of 56,000 km/hr (and that there are no other forms of propulsion available, such as a gravitational slingshot to accelerate it further), some calculations can be made.

In short, at a maximum velocity of 56,000 km/h, Deep Space 1 would take over 81,000 years to traverse the 4.24 light years between Earth and Proxima Centauri. To put that time-scale into perspective, that would be over 2,700 human generations. So it is safe to say that an interplanetary ion engine mission would be far too slow to be considered for a manned interstellar mission.

Ionic propulsion is currently the slowest, but fmost fuel-efficient, form of space travel. Credit: NASA/JPL
Ionic propulsion is currently the slowest, but most fuel-efficient, form of space travel. Credit: NASA/JPL

But, should ion thrusters be made larger and more powerful (i.e. ion exhaust velocity would need to be significantly higher), and enough propellant could be hauled to keep the spacecraft’s going for the entire 4.243 light-year trip, that travel time could be greatly reduced. Still not enough to happen in someone’s lifetime though.

Gravity Assist Method:
The fastest existing means of space travel is known the Gravity Assist method, which involves a spacecraft using the relative movement (i.e. orbit) and gravity of a planet to alter is path and speed. Gravitational assists are a very useful spaceflight technique, especially when using the Earth or another massive planet (like a gas giant) for a boost in velocity.

The Mariner 10 spacecraft was the first to use this method, using Venus’ gravitational pull to slingshot it towards Mercury in February of 1974. In the 1980s, the Voyager 1 probe used Saturn and Jupiter for gravitational slingshots to attain its current velocity of 60,000 km/hr (38,000 miles/hr) and make it into interstellar space.

However, it was the Helios 2 mission – which was launched in 1976 to study the interplanetary medium from 0.3 AU to 1 AU to the Sun – that holds the record for highest speed achieved with a gravity assist. At the time, Helios 1 (which launched in 1974) and Helios 2 held the record for closest approach to the Sun. Helios 2 was launched by a conventional NASA Titan/Centaur launch vehicle and placed in a highly elliptical orbit.

A Helios probe being encapsulated for launch. Credit: Public Domain
A Helios probe being encapsulated for launch. Credit: Public Domain

Due to the large eccentricity (0.54) of the 190 day solar orbit, at perihelion Helios 2 was able to reach a maximum velocity of over 240,000 km/hr (150,000 miles/hr). This orbital speed was attained by the gravitational pull of the Sun alone. Technically, the Helios 2 perihelion velocity was not a gravitational slingshot, it was a maximum orbital velocity, but it still holds the record for being the fastest man-made object regardless.

So, if Voyager 1 was traveling in the direction of the red dwarf Proxima Centauri at a constant velocity of 60,000 km/hr, it would take 76,000 years (or over 2,500 generations) to travel that distance. But if it could attain the record-breaking speed of Helios 2‘s close approach of the Sun – a constant speed of 240,000 km/hr – it would take 19,000 years (or over 600 generations) to travel 4.243 light years. Significantly better, but still not in the ream of practicality.

Electromagnetic (EM) Drive:
Another proposed method of interstellar travel comes in the form of the Radio Frequency (RF) Resonant Cavity Thruster, also known as the EM Drive. Originally proposed in 2001 by Roger K. Shawyer, a UK scientist who started Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR) to bring it to fruition, this drive is built around the idea that electromagnetic microwave cavities can allow for the direct conversion of electrical energy to thrust.

Whereas conventional electromagnetic thrusters are designed to propel a certain type of mass (such as ionized particles), this particular drive system relies on no reaction mass and emits no directional radiation. Such a proposal has met with a great deal of skepticism, mainly because it violates the law of Conservation of Momentum – which states that within a system, the amount of momentum remains constant and is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes through the action of forces.

A model of the EmDrive. EM Drive prototype by NASA/Eagleworks, via NASA Spaceflight Forum
The EM Drive prototype produced by NASA/Eagleworks. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Forum

However, recent experiments with the technology have apparently yielded positive results. In July of 2014, at the 50th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, researchers from NASA’s advanced propulsion research claimed that they had successfully tested a new design for an electromagnetic propulsion drive.

This was followed up in April of 2015 when researchers at NASA Eagleworks (part of the Johnson Space Center) claimed that they had successfully tested the drive in a vacuum, an indication that it might actually work in space. In July of that same year, a research team from the Dresden University of Technology’s Space System department built their own version of the engine and observed a detectable thrust.

And in 2010, Prof. Juan Yang of the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, China, began publishing a series of papers about her research into EM Drive technology. This culminated in her 2012 paper where she reported higher input power (2.5kW) and tested thrust (720mN) levels. In 2014, she further reported extensive tests involving internal temperature measurements with embedded thermocouples, which seemed to confirm that the system worked.

Artist's concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit:
Artist’s concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Center

According to calculations based on the NASA prototype (which yielded a power estimate of 0.4 N/kilowatt), a spacecraft equipped with the EM drive could make the trip to Pluto in less than 18 months. That’s one-sixth the time it took for the New Horizons probe to get there, which was traveling at speeds of close to 58,000 km/h (36,000 mph).

Sounds impressive. But even at that rate, it would take a ship equipped with EM engines over 13,000 years for the vessel to make it to Proxima Centauri. Getting closer, but not quickly enough! and until such time that technology can be definitively proven to work, it doesn’t make much sense to put our eggs into this basket.

Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP):
Another possibility for interstellar space flight is to use spacecraft equipped with nuclear engines, a concept which NASA has been exploring for decades. In a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust.

A Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP) rocket involves the same basic reactor converting its heat and energy into electrical energy, which would then power an electrical engine. In both cases, the rocket would rely on nuclear fission or fusion to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date.

The Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of a Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA

Compared to chemical propulsion, both NTP and NEC offers a number of advantages. The first and most obvious is the virtually unlimited energy density it offers compared to rocket fuel. In addition, a nuclear-powered engine could also provide superior thrust relative to the amount of propellant used. This would cut the total amount of propellant needed, thus cutting launch weight and the cost of individual missions.

Although no nuclear-thermal engines have ever flown, several design concepts have been built and tested over the past few decades, and numerous concepts have been proposed. These have ranged from the traditional solid-core design – such as the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) – to more advanced and efficient concepts that rely on either a liquid or a gas core.

However, despite these advantages in fuel-efficiency and specific impulse, the most sophisticated NTP concept has a maximum specific impulse of 5000 seconds (50 kN·s/kg). Using nuclear engines driven by fission or fusion, NASA scientists estimate it would could take a spaceship only 90 days to get to Mars when the planet was at “opposition” – i.e. as close as 55,000,000 km from Earth.

But adjusted for a one-way journey to Proxima Centauri, a nuclear rocket would still take centuries to accelerate to the point where it was flying a fraction of the speed of light. It would then require several decades of travel time, followed by many more centuries of deceleration before reaching it destination. All told, were still talking about 1000 years before it reaches its destination. Good for interplanetary missions, not so good for interstellar ones.

Theoretical Methods:

Using existing technology, the time it would take to send scientists and astronauts on an interstellar mission would be prohibitively slow. If we want to make that journey within a single lifetime, or even a generation, something a bit more radical (aka. highly theoretical) will be needed. And while wormholes and jump engines may still be pure fiction at this point, there are some rather advanced ideas that have been considered over the years.

Nuclear Pulse Propulsion:
Nuclear pulse propulsion is a theoretically possible form of fast space travel. The concept was originally proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project, and preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947. The actual project – known as Project Orion – was initiated in 1958 and lasted until 1963.

The Project Orion concept for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. Credit:
The Project Orion concept for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. Credit: silodrome.co

Led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Orion hoped to harness the power of pulsed nuclear explosions to provide a huge thrust with very high specific impulse (i.e. the amount of thrust compared to weight or the amount of seconds the rocket can continually fire).

In a nutshell, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force would be absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.

Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the advantage of the design is that it achieves a high specific impulse – meaning it extracts the maximum amount of energy from its fuel source (in this case, nuclear bombs) at minimal cost. In addition, the concept could theoretically achieve very high speeds, with some estimates suggesting a ballpark figure as high as 5% the speed of light (or 5.4×107 km/hr).

But of course, there the inevitable downsides to the design. For one, a ship of this size would be incredibly expensive to build. According to estimates produced by Dyson in 1968, an Orion spacecraft that used hydrogen bombs to generate propulsion would weight 400,000 to 4,000,000 metric tons. And at least three quarters of that weight consists of nuclear bombs, where each warhead weights approximately 1 metric ton.

An Orion spacecraft Credit: .bisbos.com/
Artist’s concept of  Orion spacecraft leaving Earth. Credit: bisbos.com/Adrian Mann

All told, Dyson’s most conservative estimates placed the total cost of building an Orion craft at 367 billion dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to roughly $2.5 trillion dollars – which accounts for over two thirds of the US government’s current annual revenue.  Hence, even at its lightest, the craft would be extremely expensive to manufacture.

There’s also the slight problem of all the radiation it generates, not to mention nuclear waste. In fact, it is for this reason that the Project is believed to have been terminated, owing to the passage of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which sought to limit nuclear testing and stop the excessive release of nuclear fallout into the planet’s atmosphere.

Fusion Rockets:
Another possibility within the realm of harnessed nuclear power involves rockets that rely on thermonuclear reactions to generate thrust. For this concept, energy is created when pellets of a deuterium/helium-3 mix are ignited in a reaction chamber by inertial confinement using electron beams (similar to what is done at the National Ignition Facility in California). This fusion reactor would detonate 250 pellets per second to create high-energy plasma, which would then be directed by a magnetic nozzle to create thrust.

Like a rocket that relies on a nuclear reactor, this concept offers advantages as far as fuel efficiency and specific impulse are concerned. Exhaust velocities of up to 10,600 km/s are estimated, which is far beyond the speed of conventional rockets. What’s more, the technology has been studied extensively over the past few decades, and many proposals have been made.

Daedalus' Deuterium/Helium 3 fuel pellets are injected into the engine, where they are hit by electron beams, compressing them to the point that fusion occurs. Magnetic fields contain the expanding plasma. Credit: Adrian Mann
Artist’s concept of the Daedalus spacecraft, a two-stage fusion rocket that would achieve up to 12% he speed of light. Credit: Adrian Mann

For example, between 1973 and 1978, the British Interplanetary Society conducted feasibility study known as Project Daedalus. Relying on current knowledge of fusion technology and existing methods, the study called for the creation of a two-stage unmanned scientific probe making a trip to Barnard’s Star (5.9 light years from Earth) in a single lifetime.

The first stage, the larger of the two, would operate for 2.05 years and accelerate the spacecraft to 7.1% the speed of light (o.071 c). This stage would then be jettisoned, at which point, the second stage would ignite its engine and accelerate the spacecraft up to about 12% of light speed (0.12 c) over the course of 1.8 years. The second-stage engine would then be shut down and the ship would enter into a 46-year cruise period.

According to the Project’s estimates, the mission would take 50 years to reach Barnard’s Star. Adjusted for Proxima Centauri, the same craft could make the trip in 36 years. But of course, the project also identified numerous stumbling blocks that made it unfeasible using then-current technology – most of which are still unresolved.

For instance, there is the fact that helium-3 is scare on Earth, which means it would have to be mined elsewhere (most likely on the Moon). Second, the reaction that drives the spacecraft requires that the energy released vastly exceed the energy used to trigger the reaction. And while experiments here on Earth have surpassed the “break-even goal”, we are still a long way away from the kinds of energy needed to power an interstellar spaceship.

Weighing in at 60,000 tons when fully fuelled, Daedalus would dwarf even the Saturn V rocket. Credit: Adrian Mann
Artist’s concept of the Project Daedalus spacecraft, with a Saturn V rocket standing next to it for scale. Credit: Adrian Mann

Third, there is the cost factor of constructing such a ship. Even by the modest standard of Project Daedalus’ unmanned craft, a fully-fueled craft would weight as much as 60,000 Mt. To put that in perspective, the gross weight of NASA’s SLS is just over 30 Mt, and a single launch comes with a price tag of $5 billion (based on estimates made in 2013).

In short, a fusion rocket would not only be prohibitively expensive to build, it would require a level of fusion reactor technology that is currently beyond our means. Icarus Interstellar, an international organization of volunteer citizen scientists (some of whom worked for NASA or the ESA) have since attempted to revitalize the concept with Project Icarus. Founded in 2009, the group hopes to make fusion propulsion (among other things) feasible by the near future.

Fusion Ramjet:
Also known as the Bussard Ramjet, this theoretical form of propulsion was first proposed by physicist Robert W. Bussard in 1960. Basically, it is an improvement over the standard nuclear fusion rocket, which uses magnetic fields to compress hydrogen fuel to the point that fusion occurs. But in the Ramjet’s case, an enormous electromagnetic funnel “scoops” hydrogen from the interstellar medium and dumps it into the reactor as fuel.

Artist's concept of the Bussard Ramjet, which would harness hydrogen from the interstellar medium to power its fusion engines. Credit: futurespacetransportation.weebly.com
Artist’s concept of the Bussard Ramjet, which would harness hydrogen from the interstellar medium to power its fusion engines. Credit: futurespacetransportation.weebly.com

As the ship picks up speed, the reactive mass is forced into a progressively constricted magnetic field, compressing it until thermonuclear fusion occurs. The magnetic field then directs the energy as rocket exhaust through an engine nozzle, thereby accelerating the vessel. Without any fuel tanks to weigh it down, a fusion ramjet could achieve speeds approaching 4% of the speed of light and travel anywhere in the galaxy.

However, the potential drawbacks of this design are numerous. For instance, there is the problem of drag. The ship relies on increased speed to accumulate fuel, but as it collides with more and more interstellar hydrogen, it may also lose speed – especially in denser regions of the galaxy. Second, deuterium and tritium (used in fusion reactors here on Earth) are rare in space, whereas fusing regular hydrogen (which is plentiful in space) is beyond our current methods.

This concept has been popularized extensively in science fiction. Perhaps the best known example of this is in the franchise of Star Trek, where “Bussard collectors” are the glowing nacelles on warp engines. But in reality, our knowledge of fusion reactions need to progress considerably before a ramjet is possible. We would also have to figure out that pesky drag problem before we began to consider building such a ship!

Laser Sail:
Solar sails have long been considered to be a cost-effective way of exploring the Solar System. In addition to being relatively easy and cheap to manufacture, there’s the added bonus of solar sails requiring no fuel. Rather than using rockets that require propellant, the sail uses the radiation pressure from stars to push large ultra-thin mirrors to high speeds.

IKAROS spaceprobe with solar sail in flight (artist's depiction) showing a typical square sail configuration. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Andrzej Mirecki
IKAROS spaceprobe with solar sail in flight (artist’s depiction) showing a typical square sail configuration. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Andrzej Mirecki

However, for the sake of interstellar flight, such a sail would need to be driven by focused energy beams (i.e. lasers or microwaves) to push it to a velocity approaching the speed of light. The concept was originally proposed by Robert Forward in 1984, who was a physicist at the Hughes Aircraft’s research laboratories at the time.

The concept retains the benefits of a solar sail, in that it requires no on-board fuel, but also from the fact that laser energy does not dissipate with distance nearly as much as solar radiation. So while a laser-driven sail would take some time to accelerate to near-luminous speeds, it would be limited only to the speed of light itself.

According to a 2000 study produced by Robert Frisbee, a director of advanced propulsion concept studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a laser sail could be accelerated to half the speed of light in less than a decade. He also calculated that a sail measuring about 320 km (200 miles) in diameter could reach Proxima Centauri in just over 12 years. Meanwhile, a sail measuring about 965 km (600 miles) in diameter would arrive in just under 9 years.

However, such a sail would have to be built from advanced composites to avoid melting. Combined with its size, this would add up to a pretty penny! Even worse is the sheer expense incurred from building a laser large and powerful enough to drive a sail to half the speed of light. According to Frisbee’s own study, the lasers would require a steady flow of 17,000 terawatts of power – close to what the entire world consumes in a single day.

Antimatter Engine:
Fans of science fiction are sure to have heard of antimatter. But in case you haven’t, antimatter is essentially material composed of antiparticles, which have the same mass but opposite charge as regular particles. An antimatter engine, meanwhile, is a form of propulsion that uses interactions between matter and antimatter to generate power, or to create thrust.

 A spacecraft powered by a positron reactor would resemble this artist's concept of the Mars Reference Mission spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of an antimatter-powered spacecraft for missions to Mars, as part of the Mars Reference Mission. Credit: NASA

In short, an antimatter engine involves particles of hydrogen and antihydrogen being slammed together. This reaction unleashes as much as energy as a thermonuclear bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, which would travel at one-third the speed of light, are then be channeled by a magnetic nozzle to generate thrust.

The advantage to this class of rocket is that a large fraction of the rest mass of a matter/antimatter mixture may be converted to energy, allowing antimatter rockets to have a far higher energy density and specific impulse than any other proposed class of rocket. What’s more, controlling this kind of reaction could conceivably push a rocket up to half the speed of light.

Pound for pound, this class of ship would be the fastest and most fuel-efficient ever conceived. Whereas conventional rockets require tons of chemical fuel to propel a spaceship to its destination, an antimatter engine could do the same job with just a few milligrams of fuel. In fact, the mutual annihilation of a half pound of hydrogen and antihydrogen particles would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb.

It is for this exact reason that NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) has investigated the technology as a possible means for future Mars missions. Unfortunately, when contemplating missions to nearby star systems, the amount if fuel needs to make the trip is multiplied exponentially, and the cost involved in producing it would be astronomical (no pun!).

What matter and antimatter might look like annihilating one another. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
What matter and antimatter might look like annihilating one another. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

According to report prepared for the 39th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference and Exhibit (also by Robert Frisbee), a two-stage antimatter rocket would need over 815,000 metric tons (900,000 US tons) of fuel to make the journey to Proxima Centauri in approximately 40 years. That’s not bad, as far as timelines go. But again, the cost…

Whereas a single gram of antimatter would produce an incredible amount of energy, it is estimated that producing just one gram would require approximately 25 million billion kilowatt-hours of energy and cost over a trillion dollars. At present, the total amount of antimatter that has been created by humans is less 20 nanograms.

And even if we could produce antimatter for cheap, you would need a massive ship to hold the amount of fuel needed. According to a report by Dr. Darrel Smith & Jonathan Webby of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, an interstellar craft equipped with an antimatter engine could reach 0.5 the speed of light and reach Proxima Centauri in a little over 8 years. However, the ship itself would weigh 400 Mt, and would need 170 MT of antimatter fuel to make the journey.

A possible way around this is to create a vessel that can create antimatter which it could then store as fuel. This concept, known as the Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES), was proposed by Richard Obousy of Icarus Interstellar. Based on the idea of in-situ refueling, a VARIES ship would rely on large lasers (powered by enormous solar arrays) which would create particles of antimatter when fired at empty space.

Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System, is a concept from Richard Obousy that would use enormous solar arrays to generate power for extremely powerful lasers, which, when fired at empty space, would create particles of antimatter which could be stored and used as fuel. The process would be used at the vehicle's destination to create fuel for the return journey. Credit: Adrian Mann
Artist’s concept of the Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES), a concept that would use solar arrays to power lasers that create particles of antimatter to be used as fuel. Credit: Adrian Mann

Much like the Ramjet concept, this proposal solves the problem of carrying fuel by harnessing it from space. But once again, the sheer cost of such a ship would be prohibitively expensive using current technology. In addition, the ability to create dark matter in large volumes is not something we currently have the power to do. There’s also the matter of radiation, as matter-antimatter annihilation can produce blasts of high-energy gamma rays.

This not only presents a danger to the crew, requiring significant radiations shielding, but requires the engines be shielded as well to ensure they don’t undergo atomic degradation from all the radiation they are exposed to. So bottom line, the antimatter engine is completely impractical with our current technology and in the current budget environment.

Alcubierre Warp Drive:
Fans of science fiction are also no doubt familiar with the concept of an Alcubierre (or “Warp”) Drive. Proposed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994, this proposed method was an attempt to make FTL travel possible without violating Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. In short, the concept involves stretching the fabric of space-time in a wave, which would theoretically cause the space ahead of an object to contract and  the space behind it to expand.

An object inside this wave (i.e. a spaceship) would then be able to ride this wave, known as a “warp bubble”, beyond relativistic speeds. Since the ship is not moving within this bubble, but is being carried along as it moves, the rules of space-time and relativity would cease to apply. The reason being, this method does not rely on moving faster than light in the local sense.

Artist Mark Rademaker's concept for the IXS Enterprise, a theoretical interstellar spacecraft. Credit: Mark Rademaker/flickr.com
Artist Mark Rademaker’s concept for the IXS Enterprise, a theoretical interstellar warp spacecraft. Credit: Mark Rademaker/flickr.com

It is only “faster than light” in the sense that the ship could reach its destination faster than a beam of light that was traveling outside the warp bubble. So assuming that a spacecraft could be outfitted with an Alcubierre Drive system, it would be able to make the trip to Proxima Centauri in less than 4 years. So when it comes to theoretical interstellar space travel, this is by far the most promising technology, at least in terms of speed.

Naturally, the concept has been received its share of counter-arguments over the years. Chief amongst them are the fact that it does not take quantum mechanics into account, and could be invalidated by a Theory of Everything (such as loop quantum gravity). Calculations on the amount of energy required have also indicated that a warp drive would require a prohibitive amount of power to work. Other uncertainties include the safety of such a system, the  effects on space-time at the destination, and violations of causality.

However, in 2012, NASA scientist Harold Sonny White announced that he and his colleagues had begun researching the possibility of an Alcubierre Drive. In a paper titled “Warp Field Mechanics 101“, White claimed that they had constructed an interferometer that will detect the spatial distortions produced by the expanding and contracting spacetime of the Alcubierre metric.

In 2013, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory published results of a warp field test which was conducted under vacuum conditions. Unfortunately, the results were reported as “inconclusive”. Long term, we may find that Alcubierre’s metric may violate one or more fundamental laws of nature. And even if the physics should prove to be sound, there is no guarantee it can be harnessed for the sake of FTL flight.

In conclusion, if you were hoping to travel to the nearest star within your lifetime, the outlook isn’t very good. However, if mankind felt the incentive to build an “interstellar ark” filled with a self-sustaining community of space-faring humans, it might be possible to travel there in a little under a century if we were willing to invest in the requisite technology.

But all the available methods are still very limited when it comes to transit time. And while taking hundreds or thousands of years to reach the nearest star may matter less to us if our very survival was at stake, it is simply not practical as far as space exploration and travel goes. By the time a mission reached even the closest stars in our galaxy, the technology employed would be obsolete and humanity might not even exist back home anymore.

So unless we make a major breakthrough in the realms of fusion, antimatter, or laser technology, we will either have to be content with exploring our own Solar System, or be forced to accept a very long-term transit strategy…

We have written many interesting articles about space travel here at Universe Today. Here’s Will We Ever Reach Another Star?, Warp Drives May Come With a Killer Downside, The Alcubierre Warp Drive, How Far Is A Light Year?, When Light Just Isn’t Fast Enough, When Will We Become Interstellar?, and Can We Travel Faster Than the Speed of Light?

For more information, be sure to consult NASA’s pages on Propulsion Systems of the Future, and Is Warp Drive Real?

And fans of interstellar travel should definitely check out Icarus Interstellar and the Tau Zero Foundation websites. Keep reaching for those stars!

Why Haven’t We Heard From All The Aliens? Because They’re All Dead!

In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi raised a very important question about the Universe and the existence of extra-terrestrial life. Given the size and age of the Universe, he stated, and the statistical probability of life emerging in other solar systems, why is it that humanity has not seen any indications of intelligence life in the cosmos? This query, known as the Fermi Paradox, continues to haunt us to this day.

If, indeed, there are billions of star systems in our galaxy, and the conditions needed for life are not so rare, then where are all the aliens? According to a recent paper by researchers at Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences., the answer may be simple: they’re all dead. In what the research teams calls the “Gaian Bottleneck”, the solution to this paradox may be that life is so fragile that most of it simply doesn’t make it.

Continue reading “Why Haven’t We Heard From All The Aliens? Because They’re All Dead!”

How Long Is A Day On The Other Planets Of The Solar System?

Here on Earth, we tend to take time for granted, never suspected that the increments with which we measure it are actually quite relative. The ways in which we measure our days and years, for example, are actually the result of our planet’s distance from the Sun, the time it takes to orbit, and the time it takes to rotate on its axis. The same is true for the other planets in our Solar System.

While we Earthlings count on a day being about 24 hours from sunup to sunup, the length of a single day on another planet is quite different. In some cases, they are very short, while in others, they can last longer than years – sometimes considerably! Let’s go over how time works on other planets and see just how long their days can be, shall we?

A Day On Mercury:

Mercury is the closest planet to our Sun, ranging from 46,001,200 km at perihelion (closest to the Sun) to 69,816,900 km at aphelion (farthest). Since it takes 58.646 Earth days for Mercury to rotate once on its axis – aka. its sidereal rotation period – this means that it takes just over 58 Earth days for Mercury to experience a single day.

However, this is not to say that Mercury experiences two sunrises in just over 58 days. Due to its proximity to the Sun and rapid speed with which it circles it, it takes the equivalent of 175.97 Earth days for the Sun to reappear in the same place in the sky. Hence, while the planet rotates once every 58 Earth days, it is roughly 176 days from one sunrise to the next on Mercury.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

What’s more, it only takes Mercury 87.969 Earth days to complete a single orbit of the Sun (aka. its orbital period). This means a year on Mercury is the equivalent of about 88 Earth days, which in turn means that a single Mercurian (or Hermian) year lasts just half as long as a Mercurian day.

What’s more, Mercury’s northern polar regions are constantly in the shade. This is due to it’s axis being tilted at a mere 0.034° (compared to Earth’s 23.4°), which means that it does not experience extreme seasonal variations where days and nights can last for months depending on the season. On the poles of Mercury, it is always dark and shady. So you could say the poles are in a constant state of twilight.

A Day On Venus:

Also known as “Earth’s Twin”, Venus is the second closest planet to our Sun – ranging from 107,477,000 km at perihelion to 108,939,000 km at aphelion. Unfortunately, Venus is also the slowest moving planet, a fact which is made evident by looking at its poles. Whereas every other planet in the Solar System has experienced flattening at their poles due to the speed of their spin, Venus has experienced no such flattening.

Venus has a rotational velocity of just 6.5 km/h (4.0 mph) – compared to Earth’s rational velocity of 1,670 km/h (1,040 mph) – which leads to a sidereal rotation period of 243.025 days. Technically, it is -243.025 days, since Venus’ rotation is retrograde. This means that Venus rotates in the direction opposite to its orbital path around the Sun.

The planet Venus, as imagined by the Magellan 10 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL
The planet Venus, as imagined by the Magellan 10 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

So if you were above Venus’ north pole and watched it circle around the Sun, you would see it is moving clockwise, whereas its rotation is counter-clockwise. Nevertheless, this still means that Venus takes over 243 Earth days to rotate once on its axis. However, much like Mercury, Venus’ orbital speed and slow rotation means that a single solar day – the time it takes the Sun to return to the same place in the sky – lasts about 117 days.

So while a single Venusian (or Cytherean) year works out to 224.701 Earth days, it experiences less than two full sunrises and sunsets in that time. In fact, a single Venusian/Cytherean year lasts as long as 1.92 Venusian/Cytherean days. Good thing Venus has other things in common With Earth, because it is sure isn’t its diurnal cycle!

A Day On Earth:

When we think of a day on Earth, we tend to think of it as a simple 24 hour interval. In truth, it takes the Earth exactly 23 hours 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds to rotate once on its axis. Meanwhile, on average, a solar day on Earth is 24 hours long, which means it takes that amount of time for the Sun to appear in the same place in the sky. Between these two values, we say a single day and night cycle lasts an even 24.

At the same time, there are variations in the length of a single day on the planet based on seasonal cycles. Due to Earth’s axial tilt, the amount of sunlight experienced in certain hemispheres will vary. The most extreme case of this occurs at the poles, where day and night can last for days or months depending on the season.

At the North and South Poles during the winter, a single night can last up to six months, which is known as a “polar night”. During the summer, the poles will experience what is called a “midnight sun”, where a day lasts a full 24 hours. So really, days are not as simple as we like to imagine. But compared to the other planets in the Solar System, time management is still easier here on Earth.

A Day On Mars:

In many respects, Mars can also be called “Earth’s Twin”. In addition to having polar ice caps, seasonal variations , and water (albeit frozen) on its surface, a day on Mars is pretty close to what a day on Earth is. Essentially, Mars takes 24 hours 37 minutes and 22 seconds to complete a single rotation on its axis. This means that a day on Mars is equivalent to 1.025957 days.

The seasonal cycles on Mars, which are due to it having an axial tilt similar to Earth’s (25.19° compared to Earth’s 23.4°), are more similar to those we experience on Earth than on any other planet. As a result, Martian days experience similar variations, with the Sun rising sooner and setting later in the summer and then experiencing the reverse in the winter.

However, seasonal variations last twice as long on Mars, thanks to Mars’ being at a greater distance from the Sun. This leads to the Martian year being about two Earth years long – 686.971 Earth days to be exact, which works out to 668.5991 Martian days (or Sols). As a result, longer days and longer nights can be expected last much longer on the Red Planet. Something for future colonists to consider!

Sunrise at Gale Crater on Mars. Gale is at center top with the mound in the middle, called Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons.)
Sunrise at Gale Crater on Mars. Gale is at center top with the mound in the middle, called Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons.)

A Day On Jupiter:

Given the fact that it is the largest planet in the Solar System, one would expect that a day on Jupiter would last a long time. But as it turns out, a Jovian day is officially only 9 hours, 55 minutes and 30 seconds long, which means a single day is just over a third the length of an Earth day. This is due to the gas giant having a very rapid rotational speed, which is 12.6 km/s (45,300 km/h, or 28148.115 mph) at the equator. This rapid rotational speed is also one of the reasons the planet has such violent storms.

Note the use of the word officially. Since Jupiter is not a solid body, its upper atmosphere undergoes a different rate of rotation compared to its equator. Basically, the rotation of Jupiter’s polar atmosphere is about 5 minutes longer than that of the equatorial atmosphere. Because of this, astronomers use three systems as frames of reference.

System I applies from the latitudes 10° N to 10° S, where its rotational period is the planet’s shortest, at 9 hours, 50 minutes, and 30 seconds. System II applies at all latitudes north and south of these; its period is 9 hours, 55 minutes, and 40.6 seconds. System III corresponds to the rotation of the planet’s magnetosphere, and it’s period is used by the IAU and IAG to define Jupiter’s official rotation (i.e. 9 hours 44 minutes and 30 seconds)

Jupiter and Io. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Jupiter and Io capturing the Sun. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

So if you could, theoretically, stand on the cloud tops of Jupiter (or possibly on a floating platform in geosynchronous orbit), you would witness the sun rising an setting in the space of less than 10 hours from any latitude. And in the space of a single Jovian year, the sun would rise and set a total of about 10,476 times.

A Day On Saturn:

Saturn’s situation is very similar to that of Jupiter’s. Despite its massive size, the planet has an estimated rotational velocity of 9.87 km/s (35,500 km/h, or 22058.677 mph). As such Saturn takes about 10 hours and 33 minutes to complete a single sidereal rotation, making a single day on Saturn less than half of what it is here on Earth. Here too, this rapid movement of the atmosphere leads to some super storms, not to mention the hexagonal pattern around the planet’s north pole and a vortex storm around its south pole.

And, also like Jupiter, Saturn takes its time orbiting the Sun. With an orbital period that is the equivalent of 10,759.22 Earth days (or 29.4571 Earth years), a single Saturnian (or Cronian) year lasts roughly 24,491 Saturnian days. However, like Jupiter, Saturn’s atmosphere rotates at different speed depending on latitude, which requires that astronomers use three systems with different frames of reference.

System I encompasses the Equatorial Zone, the South Equatorial Belt and the North Equatorial Belt, and has a period of 10 hours and 14 minutes. System II covers all other Saturnian latitudes, excluding the north and south poles, and have been assigned a rotation period of 10 hr 38 min 25.4 sec. System III uses radio emissions to measure Saturn’s internal rotation rate, which yielded a rotation period of 10 hr 39 min 22.4 sec.

This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

Using these various systems, scientists have obtained different data from Saturn over the years. For instance, data obtained during the 1980’s by the Voyager 1 and 2 missions indicated that a day on Saturn was 10 hours 39 minutes and 24 seconds long. In 2004, data provided by the Cassini-Huygens space probe measured the planet’s gravitational field, which yielded an estimate of 10 hours, 45 minutes, and 45 seconds (± 36 sec).

In 2007, this was revised by researches at the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, UCLA, which resulted in the current estimate of 10 hours and 33 minutes. Much like with Jupiter, the problem of obtaining accurate measurements arises from the fact that, as a gas giant, parts of Saturn rotate faster than others.

A Day On Uranus:

When we come to Uranus, the question of how long a day is becomes a bit complicated. One the one hand, the planet has a sidereal rotation period of 17 hours 14 minutes and 24 seconds, which is the equivalent of 0.71833 Earth days. So you could say a day on Uranus lasts almost as long as a day on Earth. It would be true, were it not for the extreme axial tilt this gas/ice giant has going on.

With an axial tilt of 97.77°, Uranus essentially orbits the Sun on its side. This means that either its north or south pole is pointed almost directly at the Sun at different times in its orbital period. When one pole is going through “summer” on Uranus, it will experience 42 years of continuous sunlight. When that same pole is pointed away from the Sun (i.e. a Uranian “winter”), it will experience 42 years of continuous darkness.

Uranus as seen by NASA's Voyager 2. Credit: NASA/JPL
Uranus as seen by NASA’s Voyager 2. Credit: NASA/JPL

Hence, you might say that a single day – from one sunrise to the next – lasts a full 84 years on Uranus! In other words, a single Uranian day is the same amount of time as a single Uranian year (84.0205 Earth years).

In addition, as with the other gas/ice giants, Uranus rotates faster at certain latitudes. Ergo, while the planet’s rotation is 17 hours and 14.5 minutes at the equator, at about 60° south, visible features of the atmosphere move much faster, making a full rotation in as little as 14 hours.

A Day On Neptune:

Last, but not least, we have Neptune. Here too, measuring a single day is somewhat complicated. For instance, Neptune’s sidereal rotation period is roughly 16 hours, 6 minutes and 36 seconds (the equivalent of 0.6713 Earth days). But due to it being a gas/ice giant, the poles of the planet rotate faster than the equator.

Whereas the planet’s magnetic field has a rotational speed of 16.1 hours, the wide equatorial zone rotates with a period of about 18 hour. Meanwhile, the polar regions rotate the fastest, at a period of 12 hours. This differential rotation is the most pronounced of any planet in the Solar System, and it results in strong latitudinal wind shear.

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL
Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

In addition, the planet’s axial tilt of 28.32° results in seasonal variations that are similar to those on Earth and Mars. The long orbital period of Neptune means that the seasons last for forty Earth years. But because its axial tilt is comparable to Earth’s, the variation in the length of its day over the course of its long year is not any more extreme.

As you can see from this little rundown of the different planets in our Solar System, what constitutes a day depends entirely on your frame of reference. In addition to it varying depending on the planet in question, you also have to take into account seasonal cycles and where on the planet the measurements are being taken from.

As Einstein summarized, time is relative to the observer. Based on your inertial reference frame, its passage will differ. And when you are standing on a planet other than Earth, your concept of day and night, which is set to Earth time (and a specific time zone) is likely to get pretty confused!

We have written many interesting articles about how time is measured on other planets here at Universe Today. For example, here’s How Long Is A Year On The Other Planets?, Which Planet Has the Longest Day?, The Rotation of Venus, How Long Is A Day on Mars? and How Long Is A Day On Jupiter?.

If you are looking for more information, check out Our Solar System at Space.com

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all the planets, including Episode 49: Mercury, and Episode 95: Humans to Mars, Part 2 – Colonists

What Is The Plum Pudding Atomic Model?

Ever since it was first proposed by Democritus in the 5th century BCE, the atomic model has gone through several refinements over the past few thousand years. From its humble beginnings as an inert, indivisible solid that interacts mechanically with other atoms, ongoing research and improved methods have led scientists to conclude that atoms are actually composed of even smaller particles that interact with each other electromagnetically.

This was the basis of the atomic theory devised by English physicist J.J. Thompson in the late 19th an early 20th centuries. As part of the revolution that was taking place at the time, Thompson proposed a model of the atom that consisted of more than one fundamental unit. Based on it’s appearance, which consisted of a “sea of uniform positive charge” with electrons distributed throughout, Thompson’s model came to be nicknamed the “Plum Pudding Model”.

Though defunct by modern standards, the Plum Pudding Model represents an important step in the development of atomic theory. Not only did it incorporate new discoveries, such as the existence of the electron, it also introduced the notion of the atom as a non-inert, divisible mass. Henceforth, scientists would understand that atoms were themselves composed of smaller units of matter, and that all atoms interacted with each other through many different forces.

Atomic Theory to the 19th century:

The earliest known examples of atomic theory come from ancient Greece and India, where philosophers such as Democritus postulated that all matter was composed of tiny, indivisible and indestructible units. The term “atom” was coined in ancient Greece and gave rise to the school of thought known as “atomism”. However, this theory was more of a philosophical concept than a scientific one.

Various atoms and molecules as depicted in John Dalton's A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808). Credit: Public Domain
Various atoms and molecules as depicted in John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808). Credit: Public Domain

It was not until the 19th century that the theory of atoms became articulated as a scientific matter, with the first evidence-based experiments being conducted. For example, in the early 1800’s, English scientist John Dalton used the concept of the atom to explain why chemical elements reacted in certain observable and predictable ways.

Dalton began with the question of why elements reacted in ratios of small whole numbers, and concluded that these reactions occurred in whole number multiples of discrete units – i.e. atoms. Through a series of experiments involving gases, Dalton went on to develop what is known as Dalton’s Atomic Theory. This theory expanded on the laws of conversation of mass and definite proportions – formulated by the end of the 18th century – and remains one of the cornerstones of modern physics and chemistry.

The theory comes down to five premises: elements, in their purest state, consist of particles called atoms; atoms of a specific element are all the same, down to the very last atom; atoms of different elements can be told apart by their atomic weights; atoms of elements unite to form chemical compounds; atoms can neither be created or destroyed in chemical reaction, only the grouping ever changes.

By the late 19th century, scientists also began to theorize that the atom was made up of more than one fundamental unit. However, most scientists ventured that this unit would be the size of the smallest known atom – hydrogen. By the end of the 19th century, his would change drastically.

Lateral view of a sort of a Crookes tube with a standing cross. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/D-Kuru
Lateral view of a sort of a Crookes tube with a standing cross. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/D-Kuru

Thompson’s Experiments:

Sir Joseph John Thomson (aka. J.J. Thompson) was an English physicist and the Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge from 1884 onwards. During the 1880s and 1890s, his work largely revolved around developing mathematical models for chemical processes, the transformation of energy in mathematical and theoretical terms, and electromagnetism.

However, by the late 1890s, he began conducting experiments using a cathode ray tube known as the Crookes’ Tube. This consists of a sealed glass container with two electrodes that are separated by a vacuum. When voltage is applied across the electrodes, cathode rays are generated (which take the form of glowing patch of gas that stretches to the far end of the tube).

Through experimentation, Thomson observed that these rays could be deflected by electric and magnetic fields. He concluded that rather than being composed of light, they were made up of negatively charged particles he called “corpuscles”. Upon measuring the mass-to-charge ration of these particles, he discovered that they were 1ooo times smaller and 1800 times lighter than hydrogen.

This effectively disproved the notion that the hydrogen atom was the smallest unit of matter, and Thompson went further to suggest that atoms were divisible. To explain the overall charge of the atom, which consisted of both positive and negative charges, Thompson proposed a model whereby the negatively charged corpuscles were distributed in a uniform sea of positive charge.

A depiction of the atomic structure of the helium atom. Credit: Creative Commons
A depiction of the atomic structure of the helium atom. Credit: Creative Commons

These corpuscles would later be named “electrons”, based on the theoretical particle predicted by Anglo-Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney in 1874. And from this, the Plum Pudding Model was born, so named because it closely resembled the English desert that consists of plum cake and raisins. The concept was introduced to the world in the March 1904 edition of the UK’s Philosophical Magazine, to wide acclaim.

Problems With the Plum Pudding Model:

Unfortunately, subsequent experiments revealed a number of scientific problems with the model. For starters, there was the problem of demonstrating that the atom possessed a uniform positive background charge, which came to be known as the “Thomson Problem”. Five years later, the model would be disproved by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, who conducted a series of experiments using alpha particles and gold foil.

In what would come to be known as the “gold foil experiment“, they measured the scattering pattern of the alpha particles with a fluorescent screen. If Thomson’s model were correct, the alpha particles would pass through the atomic structure of the foil unimpeded. However, they noted instead that while most shot straight through, some of them were scattered in various directions, with some going back in the direction of the source.

Geiger and Marsden concluded that the particles had encountered an electrostatic force far greater than that allowed for by Thomson’s model. Since alpha particles are just helium nuclei (which are positively charged) this implied that the positive charge in the atom was not widely dispersed, but concentrated in a tiny volume. In addition, the fact that those particles that were not deflected passed through unimpeded meant that these positive spaces were separated by vast gulfs of empty space.

The anticipated results of the Gieger-Marsden experiment (left), compared to the actual results (right). Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Kurzon
The anticipated results of the Gieger-Marsden experiment (left), and the actual results (right). Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Kurzon

.

By 1911, physicist Ernest Rutherford interpreted the Geiger-Marsden experiments and rejected Thomson’s model of the atom. Instead, he proposed a model where the atom consisted of mostly empty space, with all its positive charge concentrated in its center in a very tiny volume, that was surrounded by a cloud of electrons. This came to be known as the Rutherford Model of the atom.

Subsequent experiments by Antonius Van den Broek and Neils Bohr refined the model further. While Van den Broek suggested that the atomic number of an element is very similar to its nuclear charge, the latter proposed a Solar-System-like model of the atom, where a nucleus contains the atomic number of positive charge and is surrounded by an equal number of electrons in orbital shells (aka. the Bohr Model).

Though it would come to be discredited in just five years time, Thomson’s “Plum Pudding Model” would prove to be a crucial step in the development of the Standard Model of particle physics. His work in determining that atom’s were divisible, as well as the existence of electromagnetic forces within the atom, would also prove to be major influence on the field of quantum physics.

We have written many interesting articles on the subject of atomic theory here at Universe Today. For instance, here is How Many Atoms Are There In The Universe?, John Dalton’s Atomic Model, What Are The Parts Of The Atom?, Bohr’s Atomic Model,

For more information, be sure to check out Physic’s Worlds pages on 100 years of the electron: from discovery to application and Proton and neutron masses calculated from first principles

Astronomy Cast also has some episodes on the subject: Episode 138: Quantum Mechanics, Episode 139: Energy Levels and Spectra, Episode 378: Rutherford and Atoms and Episode 392: The Standard Model – Intro.

What Would Earth Look Like With Rings?

Saturn’s Rings are amazing to behold. Since they were first observed by Galileo in 1610, they have been the subject of endless scientific interest and popular fascination. Composed of billions of particles of dust and ice, these rings span a distance of about 282,000 km (175,000 miles) – which is three quarters of the distance between the Earth and its Moon – and hold roughly 30 quintillion kilograms (that’s 3.0. x 1018 kg) worth of matter.

All of the Solar System’s gas giants, from Jupiter to Neptune, have their own ring system – albeit less visible and picturesque ones. Sadly, none of the terrestrial planets (i.e. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) have such a system. But just what would it look like if Earth did? Putting aside the physical requirements that it would take for a ring system to exist, what would it be like to look up from Earth and see beautiful rings reaching overhead?

Continue reading “What Would Earth Look Like With Rings?”

What Are The Uses Of Electromagnets?

Electromagnetism is one of the fundamental forces of the universe, responsible for everything from electric and magnetic fields to light. Originally, scientists believed that magnetism and electricity were separate forces. But by the late 19th century, this view changed, as research demonstrated conclusively that positive and negative electrical charges were governed by one force (i.e. magnetism).

Since that time, scientists have sought to test and measure electromagnetic fields, and to recreate them. Towards this end, they created electromagnets, a device that uses electrical current to induce a magnetic field. And since their initial invention as a scientific instrument, electromagnets have gone on to become a regular feature of electronic devices and industrial processes.

Continue reading “What Are The Uses Of Electromagnets?”

What Is The Geocentric Model Of The Universe?

The Geocentric View of the Solar System

During the many thousand years that human beings have been looking up at the stars, our concept of what the Universe looks like has changed dramatically. At one time, the magi and sages of the world believed that the Universe consisted of a flat Earth (or a square one, a zigarrut, etc.) surrounded by the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. Over time, ancient astronomers became aware that some stars did not move like the rest, and began to understand that these too were planets.

In time, we also began to understand that the Earth was indeed round, and came up with rationalized explanations for the behavior of other celestial bodies. And by classical antiquity, scientists had formulated ideas on how the motion of the planets occurred, and how all the heavenly orbs fit together. This gave rise to the Geocentric model of the universe, a now-defunct model that explained how the Sun, Moon, and firmament circled around our planet.

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How Long Does It Take To Get To The Moon?

Back in 2008, Richard Branson outlined his vision for Virgin Galactic’s future. Once tourists are taken into Earth orbit, it seems possible that space hotels could be developed for longer stop-overs in space. He then went on to mention that short “sight-seeing” tours to the Moon could be started from these ultimate hotels. If we are to make travel to the Moon routine enough to send tourists there, the trip would need to be as short as possible.

So how long is the commute from the Earth to the Moon anyway? Human beings and machines have made that trip on several occasions. And while some took a very long time, others were astonishingly fast. Let’s review the various missions and methods, and see which offers the most efficient and least time-consuming means of transit.

Continue reading “How Long Does It Take To Get To The Moon?”

What Is The Atmosphere Like On Other Planets?

Here on Earth, we tend to take our atmosphere for granted, and not without reason. Our atmosphere has a lovely mix of nitrogen and oxygen (78% and 21% respectively) with trace amounts of water vapor, carbon dioxide and other gaseous molecules. What’s more, we enjoy an atmospheric pressure of 101.325 kPa, which extends to an altitude of about 8.5 km.

In short, our atmosphere is plentiful and life-sustaining. But what about the other planets of the Solar System? How do they stack up in terms of atmospheric composition and pressure? We know for a fact that they are not breathable by humans and cannot support life. But just what is the difference between these balls of rock and gas and our own?

For starters, it should be noted that every planet in the Solar System has an atmosphere of one kind or another. And these range from incredibly thin and tenuous (such as Mercury’s “exosphere”) to the incredibly dense and powerful – which is the case for all of the gas giants. And depending on the composition of the planet, whether it is a terrestrial or a gas/ice giant, the gases that make up its atmosphere range from either the hydrogen and helium to more complex elements like oxygen, carbon dioxide, ammonia and methane.

Mercury’s Atmosphere:

Mercury is too hot and too small to retain an atmosphere. However, it does have a tenuous and variable exosphere that is made up of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor, with a combined pressure level of about 10-14 bar (one-quadrillionth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure). It is believed this exosphere was formed from particles captured from the Sun, volcanic outgassing and debris kicked into orbit by micrometeorite impacts.

Mercury's Horizon
A High-resolution Look over Mercury’s Northern Horizon. Credit: NASA/MESSENGER

Because it lacks a viable atmosphere, Mercury has no way to retain the heat from the Sun. As a result of this and its high eccentricity, the planet experiences considerable variations in temperature. Whereas the side that faces the Sun can reach temperatures of up to 700 K (427° C), while the side in shadow dips down to 100 K (-173° C).

Venus’ Atmosphere:

Surface observations of Venus have been difficult in the past, due to its extremely dense atmosphere, which is composed primarily of carbon dioxide with a small amount of nitrogen. At 92 bar (9.2 MPa), the atmospheric mass is 93 times that of Earth’s atmosphere and the pressure at the planet’s surface is about 92 times that at Earth’s surface.

Venus is also the hottest planet in our Solar System, with a mean surface temperature of 735 K (462 °C/863.6 °F). This is due to the CO²-rich atmosphere which, along with thick clouds of sulfur dioxide, generates the strongest greenhouse effect in the Solar System. Above the dense CO² layer, thick clouds consisting mainly of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid droplets scatter about 90% of the sunlight back into space.

Another common phenomena is Venus’ strong winds, which reach speeds of up to 85 m/s (300 km/h; 186.4 mph) at the cloud tops and circle the planet every four to five Earth days. At this speed, these winds move up to 60 times the speed of the planet’s rotation, whereas Earth’s fastest winds are only 10-20% of the planet’s rotational speed.

Venus flybys have also indicated that its dense clouds are capable of producing lightning, much like the clouds on Earth. Their intermittent appearance indicates a pattern associated with weather activity, and the lightning rate is at least half of that on Earth.

Earth’s Atmosphere:

Earth’s atmosphere, which is composed of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide and other trace gases, also consists of five layers. These consists of the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. As a rule, air pressure and density decrease the higher one goes into the atmosphere and the farther one is from the surface.

Closest to the Earth is the Troposphere, which extends from the 0 to between 12 km and 17 km (0 to 7 and 10.56 mi) above the surface. This layer contains roughly 80% of the mass of Earth’s atmosphere, and nearly all atmospheric water vapor or moisture is found in here as well. As a result, it is the layer where most of Earth’s weather takes place.

The Stratosphere extends from the Troposphere to an altitude of 50 km (31 mi). This layer extends from the top of the troposphere to the stratopause, which is at an altitude of about 50 to 55 km (31 to 34 mi). This layer of the atmosphere is home to the ozone layer, which is the part of Earth’s atmosphere that contains relatively high concentrations of ozone gas.

Space Shuttle Endeavour sillouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere.[1] (The shuttle is actually orbiting at an altitude of more than 320 km (200 mi), far above all three layers.) Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Endeavour sillouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere. Credit: NASA
Next is the Mesosphere, which extends from a distance of 50 to 80 km (31 to 50 mi) above sea level. It is the coldest place on Earth and has an average temperature of around -85 °C (-120 °F; 190 K). The Thermosphere, the second highest layer of the atmosphere, extends from an altitude of about 80 km (50 mi) up to the thermopause, which is at an altitude of 500–1000 km (310–620 mi).

The lower part of the thermosphere, from 80 to 550 kilometers (50 to 342 mi), contains the ionosphere – which is so named because it is here in the atmosphere that particles are ionized by solar radiation.  This layer is completely cloudless and free of water vapor. It is also at this altitude that the phenomena known as Aurora Borealis and Aurara Australis are known to take place.

The Exosphere, which is outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, extends from the exobase – located at the top of the thermosphere at an altitude of about 700 km above sea level – to about 10,000 km (6,200 mi). The exosphere merges with the emptiness of outer space, and is mainly composed of extremely low densities of hydrogen, helium and several heavier molecules including nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide

The exosphere is located too far above Earth for any meteorological phenomena to be possible. However, the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis sometimes occur in the lower part of the exosphere, where they overlap into the thermosphere.

This photo of the aurora was taken by astronaut Doug Wheelock from the International Space Station on July 25, 2010. Credit: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center
Photo of the aurora taken by astronaut Doug Wheelock from the International Space Station on July 25, 2010. Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

The average surface temperature on Earth is approximately 14°C; but as already noted, this varies. For instance, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 70.7°C (159°F), which was taken in the Lut Desert of Iran. Meanwhile, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was measured at the Soviet Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau, reaching an historic low of -89.2°C (-129°F).

Mars’ Atmosphere:

Planet Mars has a very thin atmosphere which is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen along with traces of oxygen and water. The atmosphere is quite dusty, containing particulates that measure 1.5 micrometers in diameter, which is what gives the Martian sky a tawny color when seen from the surface. Mars’ atmospheric pressure ranges from 0.4 – 0.87 kPa, which is equivalent to about 1% of Earth’s at sea level.

Because of its thin atmosphere, and its greater distance from the Sun, the surface temperature of Mars is much colder than what we experience here on Earth. The planet’s average temperature is -46 °C (51 °F), with a low of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles, and a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator.

The planet also experiences dust storms, which can turn into what resembles small tornadoes. Larger dust storms occur when the dust is blown into the atmosphere and heats up from the Sun. The warmer dust filled air rises and the winds get stronger, creating storms that can measure up to thousands of kilometers in width and last for months at a time. When they get this large, they can actually block most of the surface from view.

Mars, as it appears today, Credit: NASA
Mars, as it appears today, with a very thin and tenuous atmosphere. Credit: NASA

Trace amounts of methane have also been detected in the Martian atmosphere, with an estimated concentration of about 30 parts per billion (ppb). It occurs in extended plumes, and the profiles imply that the methane was released from specific regions – the first of which is located between Isidis and Utopia Planitia (30°N 260°W) and the second in Arabia Terra (0°N 310°W).

Ammonia was also tentatively detected on Mars by the Mars Express satellite, but with a relatively short lifetime. It is not clear what produced it, but volcanic activity has been suggested as a possible source.

Jupiter’s Atmosphere:

Much like Earth, Jupiter experiences auroras near its northern and southern poles. But on Jupiter, the auroral activity is much more intense and rarely ever stops. The intense radiation, Jupiter’s magnetic field, and the abundance of material from Io’s volcanoes that react with Jupiter’s ionosphere create a light show that is truly spectacular.

Jupiter also experiences violent weather patterns. Wind speeds of 100 m/s (360 km/h) are common in zonal jets, and can reach as high as 620 kph (385 mph). Storms form within hours and can become thousands of km in diameter overnight. One storm, the Great Red Spot, has been raging since at least the late 1600s. The storm has been shrinking and expanding throughout its history; but in 2012, it was suggested that the Giant Red Spot might eventually disappear.

Jupiter is perpetually covered with clouds composed of ammonia crystals and possibly ammonium hydrosulfide. These clouds are located in the tropopause and are arranged into bands of different latitudes, known as “tropical regions”. The cloud layer is only about 50 km (31 mi) deep, and consists of at least two decks of clouds: a thick lower deck and a thin clearer region.

There may also be a thin layer of water clouds underlying the ammonia layer, as evidenced by flashes of lightning detected in the atmosphere of Jupiter, which would be caused by the water’s polarity creating the charge separation needed for lightning. Observations of these electrical discharges indicate that they can be up to a thousand times as powerful as those observed here on the Earth.

Saturn’s Atmosphere:

The outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. The gas giant is also known to contain heavier elements, though the proportions of these relative to hydrogen and helium is not known. It is assumed that they would match the primordial abundance from the formation of the Solar System.

Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been also detected in Saturn’s atmosphere. The upper clouds are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to consist of either ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH) or water. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun causes methane photolysis in the upper atmosphere, leading to a series of hydrocarbon chemical reactions with the resulting products being carried downward by eddies and diffusion.

Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter’s, but Saturn’s bands are much fainter and wider near the equator. As with Jupiter’s cloud layers, they are divided into the upper and lower layers, which vary in composition based on depth and pressure. In the upper cloud layers, with temperatures in range of 100–160 K and pressures between 0.5–2 bar, the clouds consist of ammonia ice.

Water ice clouds begin at a level where the pressure is about 2.5 bar and extend down to 9.5 bar, where temperatures range from 185–270 K. Intermixed in this layer is a band of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, lying in the pressure range 3–6 bar with temperatures of 290–235 K. Finally, the lower layers, where pressures are between 10–20 bar and temperatures are 270–330 K, contains a region of water droplets with ammonia in an aqueous solution.

On occasion, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits long-lived ovals, similar to what is commonly observed on Jupiter. Whereas Jupiter has the Great Red Spot, Saturn periodically has what’s known as the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval). This unique but short-lived phenomenon occurs once every Saturnian year, roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.

These spots can be several thousands of kilometers wide, and have been observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, 1960, and 1990. Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed enveloping Saturn, which was spotted by the Cassini space probe. If the periodic nature of these storms is maintained, another one will occur in about 2020.

The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System’s planets, after Neptune’s. Voyager data indicate peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn’s northern and southern poles have also shown evidence of stormy weather. At the north pole, this takes the form of a hexagonal wave pattern, whereas the south shows evidence of a massive jet stream.

The persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north pole was first noted in the Voyager images. The sides of the hexagon are each about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) long (which is longer than the diameter of the Earth) and the structure rotates with a period of 10h 39m 24s, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s interior.

The south pole vortex, meanwhile, was first observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. These images indicated the presence of a jet stream, but not a hexagonal standing wave. These storms are estimated to be generating winds of 550 km/h, are comparable in size to Earth, and believed to have been going on for billions of years. In 2006, the Cassini space probe observed a hurricane-like storm that had a clearly defined eye. Such storms had not been observed on any planet other than Earth – even on Jupiter.

Uranus’ Atmosphere:

As with Earth, the atmosphere of Uranus is broken into layers, depending upon temperature and pressure. Like the other gas giants, the planet doesn’t have a firm surface, and scientists define the surface as the region where the atmospheric pressure exceeds one bar (the pressure found on Earth at sea level). Anything accessible to remote-sensing capability – which extends down to roughly 300 km below the 1 bar level – is also considered to be the atmosphere.

Diagram of the interior of Uranus. Credit: Public Domain
Diagram of the interior of Uranus. Credit: Public Domain

Using these references points, Uranus’  atmosphere can be divided into three layers. The first is the troposphere, between altitudes of -300 km below the surface and 50 km above it, where pressures range from 100 to 0.1 bar (10 MPa to 10 kPa). The second layer is the stratosphere, which reaches between 50 and 4000 km and experiences pressures between 0.1 and 10-10 bar (10 kPa to 10 µPa).

The troposphere is the densest layer in Uranus’ atmosphere. Here, the temperature ranges from 320 K (46.85 °C/116 °F) at the base (-300 km) to 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) at 50 km, with the upper region being the coldest in the solar system. The tropopause region is responsible for the vast majority of Uranus’s thermal infrared emissions, thus determining its effective temperature of 59.1 ± 0.3 K.

Within the troposphere are layers of clouds – water clouds at the lowest pressures, with ammonium hydrosulfide clouds above them. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide clouds come next. Finally, thin methane clouds lay on the top.

In the stratosphere, temperatures range from 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) at the upper level to between 800 and 850 K (527 – 577 °C/980 – 1070 °F) at the base of the thermosphere, thanks largely to heating caused by solar radiation. The stratosphere contains ethane smog, which may contribute to the planet’s dull appearance. Acetylene and methane are also present, and these hazes help warm the stratosphere.

Uranus. Image credit: Hubble
Uranus, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/Hubble

The outermost layer, the thermosphere and corona, extend from 4,000 km to as high as 50,000 km from the surface. This region has a uniform temperature of 800-850 (577 °C/1,070 °F), although scientists are unsure as to the reason. Because the distance to Uranus from the Sun is so great, the amount of sunlight absorbed cannot be the primary cause.

Like Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus’s weather follows a similar pattern where systems are broken up into bands that rotate around the planet, which are driven by internal heat rising to the upper atmosphere. As a result, winds on Uranus can reach up to 900 km/h (560 mph), creating massive storms like the one spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012. Similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, this “Dark Spot” was a giant cloud vortex that measured 1,700 kilometers by 3,000 kilometers (1,100 miles by 1,900 miles).

Neptune’s Atmosphere:

At high altitudes, Neptune’s atmosphere is 80% hydrogen and 19% helium, with a trace amount of methane. As with Uranus, this absorption of red light by the atmospheric methane is part of what gives Neptune its blue hue, although Neptune’s is darker and more vivid. Because Neptune’s atmospheric methane content is similar to that of Uranus, some unknown constituent is thought to contribute to Neptune’s more intense coloring.

Neptune’s atmosphere is subdivided into two main regions: the lower troposphere (where temperature decreases with altitude), and the stratosphere (where temperature increases with altitude). The boundary between the two, the tropopause, lies at a pressure of 0.1 bars (10 kPa). The stratosphere then gives way to the thermosphere at a pressure lower than 10-5 to 10-4 microbars (1 to 10 Pa), which gradually transitions to the exosphere.

Neptune’s spectra suggest that its lower stratosphere is hazy due to condensation of products caused by the interaction of ultraviolet radiation and methane (i.e. photolysis), which produces compounds such as ethane and ethyne. The stratosphere is also home to trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, which are responsible for Neptune’s stratosphere being warmer than that of Uranus.

In this image, the colors and contrasts were modified to emphasize the planet’s atmospheric features. The winds in Neptune’s atmosphere can reach the speed of sound or more. Neptune’s Great Dark Spot stands out as the most prominent feature on the left. Several features, including the fainter Dark Spot 2 and the South Polar Feature, are locked to the planet’s rotation, which allowed Karkoschka to precisely determine how long a day lasts on Neptune. (Image: Erich Karkoschka)
A modified color/contrast image emphasizing Neptune’s atmospheric features, including wind speed. Credit Erich Karkoschka)

For reasons that remain obscure, the planet’s thermosphere experiences unusually high temperatures of about 750 K (476.85 °C/890 °F). The planet is too far from the Sun for this heat to be generated by ultraviolet radiation, which means another heating mechanism is involved – which could be the atmosphere’s interaction with ion’s in the planet’s magnetic field, or gravity waves from the planet’s interior that dissipate in the atmosphere.

Because Neptune is not a solid body, its atmosphere undergoes differential rotation. The wide equatorial zone rotates with a period of about 18 hours, which is slower than the 16.1-hour rotation of the planet’s magnetic field. By contrast, the reverse is true for the polar regions where the rotation period is 12 hours.

This differential rotation is the most pronounced of any planet in the Solar System, and results in strong latitudinal wind shear and violent storms. The three most impressive were all spotted in 1989 by the Voyager 2 space probe, and then named based on their appearances.

The first to be spotted was a massive anticyclonic storm measuring 13,000 x 6,600 km and resembling the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. Known as the Great Dark Spot, this storm was not spotted five later (Nov. 2nd, 1994) when the Hubble Space Telescope looked for it. Instead, a new storm that was very similar in appearance was found in the planet’s northern hemisphere, suggesting that these storms have a shorter life span than Jupiter’s.

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL
Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

The Scooter is another storm, a white cloud group located farther south than the Great Dark Spot – a nickname that first arose during the months leading up to the Voyager 2 encounter in 1989. The Small Dark Spot, a southern cyclonic storm, was the second-most-intense storm observed during the 1989 encounter. It was initially completely dark; but as Voyager 2 approached the planet, a bright core developed and could be seen in most of the highest-resolution images.

In sum, the planet’s of our Solar System all have atmospheres of sorts. And compared to Earth’s relatively balmy and thick atmosphere, they run the gamut between very very thin to very very dense. They also range in temperatures from the extremely hot (like on Venus) to the extreme freezing cold.

And when it comes to weather systems, things can equally extreme, with planet’s boasting either weather at all, or intense cyclonic and dust storms that put storms here n Earth to shame. And whereas some are entirely hostile to life as we know it, others we might be able to work with.

We have many interesting articles about planetary atmosphere’s here at Universe Today. For instance, he’s What is the Atmosphere?, and articles about the atmosphere of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune,

For more information on atmospheres, check out NASA’s pages on Earth’s Atmospheric Layers, The Carbon Cycle, and how Earth’s atmosphere differs from space.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the source of the atmosphere.

What Is The Heliocentric Model Of The Universe?

Heliocentric Model

The Scientific Revolution, which took place in the 16th and 17th centuries, was a time of unprecedented learning and discovery. During this period, the foundations of modern science were laid, thanks to breakthroughs in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy. And when it comes to astronomy, the most influential scholar was definitely Nicolaus Copernicus, the man credited with the creation of the Heliocentric model of the Universe.

Based on ongoing observations of the motions of the planets, as well as previous theories from classical antiquity and the Islamic World, Copernicus’ proposed a model of the Universe where the Earth, the planets and the stars all revolved around the Sun. In so doing, he resolved the mathematical problems and inconsistencies arising out of the classic geocentric model and laid the foundations for modern astronomy.

While Copernicus was not the first to propose a model of the Solar System in which the Earth and planets revolved around the Sun, his model of a heliocentric universe was both novel and timely. For one, it came at a time when European astronomers were struggling to resolve the mathematical and observational problems that arose out of the then-accepted Ptolemaic model of the Universe, a geocentric model proposed in the 2nd century CE.

In addition, Copernicus’ model was the first astronomical system that offered a complete and detailed account of how the Universe worked. Not only did his model resolves issues arising out of the Ptolemaic system, it offered a simplified view of the universe that did away with complicated mathematical devices that were needed for the geocentric model to work. And with time, the model gained influential proponents who contributed to it becoming the accepted convention of astronomy.

The Geocentric View of the Solar System
An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568. Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

The Ptolemaic (Geocentric) Model:

The geocentric model, in which planet Earth is the center of the Universe and is circled by the Sun and all the planets, had been the accepted cosmological model since ancient times. By late antiquity, this model had come to be formalized by ancient Greek and Roman astronomers, such as Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) – who’s theories on physics became the basis for the motion of the planets – and Ptolemy (ca. 100 – ca.?170 CE), who proposed the mathematical solutions.

The geocentric model essentially came down to two common observations. First of all, to ancient astronomers, the stars, the Sun, and the planets appeared to revolve around the Earth on daily basis. Second, from the perspective of the Earth-bound observer, the Earth did not appear to move, making it a fixed point in space.

The belief that the Earth was spherical, which became an accepted fact by the 3rd century BCE, was incorporated into this system. As such, by the time of Aristotle, the geocentric model of the universe became one where the Earth, Sun and all the planets were spheres, and where the Sun, planets and stars all moved in perfect circular motions.

However, it was not until Egyptian-Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) released his treatise Almagest in the 2nd century BCE that the details became standardized. Drawing on centuries of astronomical traditions, ranging from Babylonian to modern times, Ptolemy argued that the Earth was in the center of the universe and the stars were all at a modest distance from the center of the universe.

About every two years, however, the Earth passes Mars as they orbit around the Sun. Credit: NASA
The planet Mars, undergoing “retrograde motion” – a phenomena where it appears to be moving backwards in the sky – in late 2009 and early 2010. Credit: NASA

Each planet in this system is also moved by a system of two spheres – a deferent and an epicycle. The deferent is a circle whose center point is removed from the Earth, which was used to account for the differences in the lengths of the seasons. The epicycle is embedded in the deferent sphere, acting as a sort of “wheel within a wheel”. The purpose of he epicycle was to account for retrograde motion, where planets in the sky appear to be slowing down, moving backwards, and then moving forward again.

Unfortunately, these explanations did not account for all the observed behaviors of the planets. Most noticeably, the size of a planet’s retrograde loop (especially Mars) were sometimes smaller, and larger, than expected. To alleviate the problem, Ptolemy developed the equant – a geometrical tool located near the center of a planet’s orbit that causes it to move at a uniform angular speed.

To an observer standing at this point, a planet’s epicycle would always appear to move at uniform speed, whereas it would appear to be moving at non-uniform speed from all other locations.While this system remained the accepted cosmological model within the Roman, Medieval European and Islamic worlds for over a thousand years, it was unwieldy by modern standards.

However, it did manage to predict planetary motions with a fair degree of accuracy, and was used to prepare astrological and astronomical charts for the next 1500 years. By the 16th century, this model was gradually superseded by the heliocentric model of the universe, as espoused by Copernicus, and then Galileo and Kepler.

Picture of George Trebizond's Latin translation of Almagest. Credit: Public Domain.
Picture of George Trebizond’s Latin translation of Almagest. Credit: Public Domain

The Copernican (Heliocentric) Model:

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus began devising his version of the heliocentric model. Like others before him, Copernicus built on the work of Greek astronomer Atistarchus, as well as paying homage to the Maragha school and several notable philosophers from the Islamic world (see below). By the early 16th century, Copernicus summarized his ideas in a short treatise titled Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”).

By 1514, Copernicus began circulating copies amongst his friends, many of whom were fellow astronomers and scholars. This forty-page manuscript described his ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis, which was based on seven general principles. These principles stated that:

  • Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point
  • The center of Earth is the center of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around Earth
  • All the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the center of the Universe
  • The distance between Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from Earth and Sun to the stars, so parallax is not observed in the stars
  • The stars are immovable – their apparent daily motion is caused by the daily rotation of Earth
  • Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun. Earth has more than one motion
  • Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets

Thereafter he continued gathering data for a more detailed work, and by 1532, he had come close to completing the manuscript of his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it, he advanced his seven major arguments, but in more detailed form and with detailed computations to back them up.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu
A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu

By placing the orbits of Mercury and Venus between the  Earth and the Sun, Copernicus was able to account for changes in their appearances. In short, when they are on the far side of the Sun, relative to Earth, they appear smaller but full. When they are on the same side of the Sun as the Earth, they appear larger and “horned” (crescent-shaped).

It also explained the retrograde motion of planets like Mars and Jupiter by showing that Earth astronomers do not have a fixed frame of reference but a moving one. This further explained how Mars and Jupiter could appear significantly larger at certain times than at others. In essence, they are significantly closer to Earth when at opposition than when they are at conjunction.

However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to condemnation from the church (as well as, perhaps, worries that his theory presented some scientific flaws) he withheld his research until a year before he died. It was only in 1542, when he was near death, that he sent his treatise to Nuremberg to be published.

Historical Antecedents:

As already noted, Copernicus was not the first to advocate a heliocentric view of the Universe, and his model was based on the work of several previous astronomers. The first recorded examples of this are traced to classical antiquity, when Aristarchus of Samos (ca. 310 – 230 BCE) published writings that contained references which were cited by his contemporaries (such as Archimedes).

Aristarchus's 3rd century BC calculations on the relative sizes of, from left, the Sun, Earth and Moon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Aristarchus’s 3rd century BC calculations on the relative sizes of, from left, the Sun, Earth and Moon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In his treatise The Sand Reckoner, Archimedes described another work by Aristarchus in which he advanced an alternative hypothesis of the heliocentric model. As he explained:

Now you are aware that ‘universe’ is the name given by most astronomers to the sphere whose center is the center of the earth and whose radius is equal to the straight line between the center of the sun and the center of the earth. This is the common account… as you have heard from astronomers. But Aristarchus of Samos brought out a book consisting of some hypotheses, in which the premises lead to the result that the universe is many times greater than that now so called. His hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the sun remain unmoved, that the earth revolves about the sun in the circumference of a circle, the sun lying in the middle of the orbit, and that the sphere of the fixed stars, situated about the same center as the sun, is so great that the circle in which he supposes the earth to revolve bears such a proportion to the distance of the fixed stars as the center of the sphere bears to its surface.

This gave rise to the notion that there should be an observable parallax with the “fixed stars” (i.e an observed movement of the stars relative to each other as the Earth moved around the Sun). According to Archimedes, Aristarchus claimed that the stars were much farther away than commonly believed, and this was the reason for no discernible parallax.

The only other philosopher from antiquity who’s writings on heliocentrism have survived is Seleucis of Seleucia (ca. 190 – 150 BCE). A Hellenistic astronomer who lived in the Near-Eastern Seleucid empire, Seleucus was a proponent of the heliocentric system of Aristarchus, and is said to have proved the heliocentric theory.

According to contemporary sources, Seleucus may have done this by determining the constants of the geocentric model and applying them to a heliocentric theory, as well as computing planetary positions (possibly using trigonometric methods). Alternatively, his explanation may have involved the phenomenon of tides, which he supposedly theorized to be related to the influence of the Moon and the revolution of the Earth around the Earth-Moon ‘center of mass’.

In the 5th century CE, Roman philosopher Martianus Capella of Carthage expressed an opinion that the planets Venus and Mercury revolved around the Sun, as a way of explaining the discrepancies in their appearances. Capella’s model was discussed in the Early Middle Ages by various anonymous 9th-century commentators, and Copernicus mentions him as an influence on his own work.

During the Late Middle Ages, Bishop Nicole Oresme (ca. 1320-1325 to 1382 CE) discussed the possibility that the Earth rotated on its axis. In his 1440 treatise De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance) Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – 1464 CE) asked whether there was any reason to assert that the Sun (or any other point) was the center of the universe.

Indian astronomers and cosmologists also hinted at the possibility of a heliocentric universe during late antiquity and the Middle Ages. In 499 CE, Indian astronomer Aaryabhata published his magnum opus Aryabhatiya, in which he proposed a model where the Earth was spinning on its axis and the periods of the planets were given with respect to the Sun. He also accurately calculated the periods of the planets, times of the solar and lunar eclipses, and the motion of the Moon.

Ibn al-Shatir's model for the appearances of Mercury, showing the multiplication of epicycles using the Tusi couple, thus eliminating the Ptolemaic eccentrics and equant. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Ibn al-Shatir’s model for the appearances of Mercury, showing the multiplication of epicycles using the Tusi couple, thus eliminating the Ptolemaic eccentrics and equant. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In the 15th century, Nilakantha Somayaji published the Aryabhatiyabhasya, which was a commentary on Aryabhata’s Aryabhatiya. In it, he developed a computational system for a partially heliocentric planetary model, in which the planets orbit the Sun, which in turn orbits the Earth. In the Tantrasangraha (1500), he revised the mathematics of his planetary system further and incorporated the Earth’s rotation on its axis.

Also, the heliocentric model of the universe had proponents in the medieval Islamic world, many of whom would go on to inspire Copernicus. Prior to the 10th century, the Ptolemaic model of the universe was the accepted standard to astronomers in the West and Central Asia. However, in time, manuscripts began to appear that questioned several of its precepts.

For instance, the 10th-century Iranian astronomer Abu Sa’id al-Sijzi contradicted the Ptolemaic model by asserting that the Earth revolved on its axis, thus explaining the apparent diurnal cycle and the rotation of the stars relative to Earth. In the early 11th century, Egyptian-Arab astronomer Alhazen wrote a critique entitled Doubts on Ptolemy (ca. 1028) in which he criticized many aspects of his model.

Entrance to the observatory of Ulug'Beg (now Museum) in Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Credit: WIkipedia Commons/Sigismund von Dobschütz
Entrance to the observatory of Ulug’Beg in Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Sigismund von Dobschütz

Around the same time, Iranian philosopher Abu Rayhan Biruni  973 – 1048) discussed the possibility of Earth rotating about its own axis and around the Sun – though he considered this a philosophical issue and not a mathematical one. At the Maragha and the Ulugh Beg (aka. Samarkand) Observatory, the Earth’s rotation was discussed by several generations of astronomers between the 13th and 15th centuries, and many of the arguments and evidence put forward resembled those used by Copernicus.

Impact of the Heliocentric Model:

Despite his fears about his arguments producing scorn and controversy, the publication of Copernicu’s theories resulted in only mild condemnation from religious authorities. Over time, many religious scholars tried to argue against his model. But within a few generation’s time, Copernicus’ theory became more widespread and accepted, and gained many influential defenders in the meantime.

These included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who’s investigations of the heavens using the telescope allowed him to resolve what were seen as flaws in the heliocentric model, as well as discovering aspects about the heavens that supported heliocentrism. For example, Galileo discovered moons orbiting Jupiter, Sunspots, and the imperfections on the Moon’s surface – all of which helped to undermine the notion that the planets were perfect orbs, rather than planets similar to Earth. While Galileo’s advocacy of Copernicus’ theories resulted in his house arrest, others soon followed.

German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) also helped to refine the heliocentric model with his introduction of elliptical orbits. Prior to this, the heliocentric model still made use of circular orbits, which did not explain why planets orbited the Sun at different speeds at different times. By showing how the planet’s sped up while at certain points in their orbits, and slowed down in others, Kepler resolved this.

In addition, Copernicus’ theory about the Earth being capable of motion would go on to inspire a rethinking of the entire field of physics. Whereas previous ideas of motion depended on an outside force to instigate and maintain it (i.e. wind pushing a sail) Copernicus’ theories helped to inspire the concepts of gravity and inertia. These ideas would be articulated by Sir Isaac Newton, who’s Principia formed the basis of modern physics and astronomy.

Although its progress was slow, the heliocentric model eventually replaced the geocentric model. In the end, the impact of its introduction was nothing short of a revolutionary. Henceforth, humanity’s understanding of the universe and our place in it would be forever changed.

We have written many interesting articles on the heliocentric model here at Universe Today. For starters, here’s Galileo Returns to the Vatican and The Earth Goes Around the Sun, Who Was Nicolaus Copernicus? and What is the Difference Between the Geocentric and Heliocentric Models?

For more information on heliocentrism, take a look at these articles from NASA on Copernicus or the center of the galaxy.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode on the subject, titled Episode 77: Where is the Center of the Universe and Episode 302: Planetary Motion in the Sky.