Radiation from the Sun

Extreme Ultraviolet Sun
Extreme Ultraviolet Sun

[/caption]Radiation from the Sun, which is more popularly known as sunlight, is a mixture of electromagnetic waves ranging from infrared (IR) to ultraviolet rays (UV). It of course includes visible light, which is in between IR and UV in the electromagnetic spectrum.

All electromagnetic waves (EM) travel at a speed of approximately 3.0 x 10 8 m/s in vacuum. Although space is not a perfect vacuum, as it is really composed of low-density particles, EM waves, neutrinos, and magnetic fields, it can certainly be approximated as such.

Now, since the average distance between the Earth and the Sun over one Earth orbit is one AU (about 150,000,000,000 m), then it will take about 8 minutes for radiation from the Sun to get to Earth.

Actually, the Sun does not only produce IR, visible light, and UV. Fusion in the core actually gives off high energy gamma rays. However, as the gamma ray photons make their arduous journey to the surface of the Sun, they are continuously absorbed by the solar plasma and re-emitted to lower frequencies. By the time they get to the surface, their frequencies are mostly only within the IR/visible light/UV spectrum.

During solar flares, the Sun also emits X-rays. X-ray radiation from the Sun was first observed by T. Burnight during a V-2 rocket flight. This was later confirmed by Japan’s Yohkoh, a satellite launched in 1991.

When electromagnetic radiation from the Sun strikes the Earth’s atmosphere, some of it is absorbed while the rest proceed to the Earth’s surface. In particular, UV is absorbed by the ozone layer and re-emitted as heat, eventually heating up the stratosphere. Some of this heat is re-radiated to outer space while some is sent to the Earth’s surface.

In the meantime, the electromagnetic radiation that wasn’t absorbed by the atmosphere proceeds to the Earth’s surface and heats it up. Some of this heat stays there while the rest is re-emitted. Upon reaching the atmosphere, part of it gets absorbed and part of it passes through. Naturally, the ones that get absorbed add to the heat already there.

The presence of greenhouse gases make the atmosphere absorb more heat, reducing the fraction of outbound EM waves that pass through. Known as the greenhouse effect, this is the reason why heat can build up some more.

The Earth is not the only planet that experiences the greenhouse effect. Read about the greenhouse effect taking place in Venus here in Universe Today. We’ve also got an interesting article that talks about a real greenhouse on the Moon by 2014.

Here’s a simplified explanation of the greenhouse effect on the EPA’s website. There’s also NASA’s Climate Change page.

Relax and listen to some interesting episodes at Astronomy Cast. Want to know more aboutUltraviolet Astronomy? How different is it from Optical Astronomy?

NASA Science: The Electromagnetic Spectrum
NASA Earth Observatory

How Do Microwaves Work

How Do Microwaves Work
microwave oven

[/caption]Microwave ovens don’t operate in the same manner as conventional ovens. So how do microwaves work then? Microwave ovens take advantage of the behavior of water molecules when subjected to electromagnetic waves found in the microwave band.

To understand how this happens, we’ll have to comprehend the basic properties of water molecules and microwaves (the electromagnetic waves, not the oven).

The mickey mouse-shaped water molecule is actually a dipole. That is, one side is positively charged while the other is negative.

Microwaves used for cooking, on the other hand, are electromagnetic waves possessing frequencies around the 2.45 GHz range. Now, electromagnetic waves are waves made up of alternating electric and magnetic fields. For this discussion, we’re more concerned with the alternating electric fields because charged particles readily react when exposed to them.

That is, when a positively charged particle is exposed to an electric field, it experiences a force (due to the field) pointing in the direction of the field. By contrast, when a negatively charged particle is exposed to the same field, it experiences a force in the direction opposite to the field.

Now, since an electromagnetic wave (like the microwave) is made up of alternating electric fields, a charge exposed to it will experience forces regularly changing in direction. For water molecules, which are dipoles, the net effect would force the molecules into rotation. Again, since the fields are alternating, the rotation will change from clockwise to counterclockwise at regular time intervals.

The agitated water molecules would then possess heat energy that can rub off (much like friction) to nearby molecules. If the water molecules are well distributed in the body subjected to the microwave (like food, for example), then the entire body can heat up quickly – not to mention, uniformly.

Electromagnetic waves in the microwave range are most suitable for this purpose because the water molecules readily rotate when exposed to such frequencies.

Avoid putting in metal into the microwave oven while heating. The reason is because pointed portions of the metal can accumulate high voltages which can cause dielectric breakdown of the air inside the oven. Once this happens, some harmful gases can be produced.

Since microwave ovens normally don’t have heating elements, temperature can drop right away in the inner walls of the oven. So you’ll only need to worry about getting burned by the food and not the walls.

You can read more about electromagnetic waves here in Universe Today. Want to know about how the 25-year old mystery of X-ray emissions was solved? We’ve also written about how astronomers resolved Milky Way’s mysterious X-Ray glow

There’s more about it at NASA and Physics World. Here are a couple of sources there:
X-Ray Astronomy
X-ray Beams Thin Out

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:
X-Ray Astronomy
Optical Astronomy

Source: Wikipedia

Visible Light

Sunlight passing through a prism. Image credit: NASA

Of all the wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, those that lie between 400 nm to 700 nm are the ones most familiar to us. That’s because these are the waves that comprise what we call visible light. 

When we see objects, it’s because they’re being illuminated by visible light. When we see that the sky is blue, or the grass is green, or hair black, or that an apple is red, that’s because we’re seeing different wavelengths within the 400nm-700nm band. Because of the waves in this band, a lot has been learned about the properties of electromagnetic waves.

Through visible light, reflection & refraction are easily observed. So are interference and diffraction. Mirrors, lenses, prisms, diffraction gratings, and spectrometers have all been put to use to understand and manifest the qualities of the light that we see through our naked eyes.

Galileo’s telescope, which was composed of a simple set of lenses, made use of the refractive properties of light to magnify distant objects. Today’s  binoculars and periscopes capitalize on the optical phenomenon called Total Internal Reflection by using prisms to improve on what early refractive telescopes were capable of achieving.

As mentioned earlier, visible light is made up of the wavelengths that range from 400 nm to 700 nm. Each wavelength is characterized by a unique color, with violet on one end (adjacent to ultraviolet light) and red on the other (adjacent to infrared light). When all these wavelengths are combined together, they make up what is known as white light. 

You can separate these wavelengths (and the corresponding colors) by letting them pass through either a prism or a diffraction grating. The magnificent array of colors that we see in a rainbow, on a diamond, or even a peacock’s tail are examples of this separation.

All phenomena of visible light such as reflection, refraction, interference, and diffraction are also exhibited by non-visible wavelengths. Hence, by understanding these phenomena, and applying them to the non-visible wavelengths, scientists were able to unearth many of nature’s secrets. In fact, if we trace back the roots of modern physics, particularly the wave-particle duality of matter, we will be led back to its manifestation in visible light. 

The study of visible light falls under the realm of optics. Among the scientists who have contributed substantially to the development of optics are Christiaan Huygens for his wavelets and a wave theory of light, Isaac Newton for his contributions on reflection and refraction, James Clerk Maxwell for the propagation of electromagnetic waves as explained in a series of equations, and Heinrich Hertz for verifying the truth of those equations through experiments.

You can read more about visible light here in Universe Today. Want to know where visible light comes from? How about a visible light image of a distant galaxy?

There’s more about it at NASA and Physics World:
Visible Light Waves
The special effect of physics

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:
Optical Astronomy

Windows to Universe
NASA: Visible Light
Wikipedia: Christiaan Huygens
NASA: Maxwell and Hertz