Why Do We Sometimes See a Ring Around the Moon?

Moon halo by Rob Sparks

Have you ever looked up on a clear night and noticed there’s a complete ring around the Moon? In fact, if you look closely, the ring can have a rainbow appearance, with bright spots on either side, or above and below. What’s going on with the Moon and the atmosphere to cause this effect?

This ring surrounding the Moon is caused by the refraction of Moonlight (which is really reflected sunlight, of course) through ice crystals suspended in the upper atmosphere between 5-10 km in altitude. It doesn’t have to be winter, since the cold temperatures at high altitudes are below freezing any time of the year. Generally they’re seen with cirrus clouds; the thin, wispy clouds at high altitude.

The ice crystals themselves have a very consistent hexagonal shape, which means that any light passing through them will always refract light – or bend – at the same angle.

640px-Path_of_rays_in_a_hexagonal_prism
Path of rays in a hexagonal prism” by donalbein – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons.
Moonlight passes through one facet of the ice crystal, and is then refracted back out at exactly the angle of 22-degrees.

Of course, the atmosphere is filled with an incomprehensible number of crystals, all refracting moonlight off in different directions. But at any moment, a huge number happen to be in just the right position to be refracting light towards your eyes. You just aren’t in a position to see all the other refracted light. In fact, everyone sees their own private halo, because you’re only seeing the crystals that happen to be aligning the light for your specific location. Someone a few meters beside you is seeing their own private version of the halo – just like a rainbow.

A halo rings the bright moon and planet Jupiter (left of moon) Credit: Bob King
A halo rings the bright moon and planet Jupiter (left of moon) Credit: Bob King

The size of the ring is most commonly 22-degrees. This is about the same size as your open hand on your outstretched arm. The Moon itself, for comparison, is the size of your smallest nail when you hold out your hand.

The 22-degree size corresponds to the refraction angle of moonlight.

We see a rainbow because the different colors are refracted at slightly different angles. This is exactly what happens with a rainbow. The moonlight is broken up into its separate colors because they all refract at different angles, and so you see the colors split up like a rainbow.

Lunar halo by Gustav Sanchez
Lunar halo with rainbow. Photo credit: Gustav Sanchez.
Moon dogs (or “mock moons”) are seen as bright spots that can appear on either side of the Moon, when the Moon is closer to the horizon, and at its fullest. These are located on either side of the lunar ring, parallel to the horizon.

In certain conditions, especially in the Arctic, where the ice crystals can be close to the surface, you can get a moon pillar. The light from the Moon reflects off the ice crystals near the surface, creating a glow near the horizon.

Sun pillar by Mary Spicer
This is a Sun pillar (not a moon pillar), but it’s the same general idea. Photo credit: Mary Spicer.

Want to see more? Here’s a great lunar halo photo from NASA’s APOD. And here’s more info from Earth and Sky.

Allergies? Must Be Pollen Corona Season Again

Don’t be surprised if you look up in the Sun’s direction and squint with itchy, watery eyes. You might be staring into billows of tree pollen wafting through your town. It’s certainly been happening where I live.

When conditions are right, billions of microscopic pollen grains consort to create small, oval-shaped rings around a bright Moon during the peak of the spring and early summer allergy season. With the Full Moon coming up this week, there’s no better time to watch for them. 

Pollen grains from a variety of different common plants including sunflower, morning glory, prairie hollyhock and evening primrose. Credit: Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College
Pollen grains from a variety of different common plants including sunflower, morning glory, prairie hollyhock and evening primrose magnified 500x and colorized.  The green, bean-shaped grain at lower left is 0.05 mm across. Credit: Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility

Because they’re often lost in the glare of the Sun or Moon, the key to finding one is to hide the solar or lunar disk behind a thick tree branch, roof or my favorite, the power pole. Look for a telltale oval glow, sometimes tinted with rainbow colors, right up next to the Moon or Sun’s edge. Common halos, those that form when light is refracted by ice crystals, span 44° compared to pollen coronas, which measure just a few degrees in diameter.

To see or photograph coronas, you need plenty of light. The Sun’s ideal, but so is the Moon around full. Fortunately, that happens on June 2, neatly fitting into the sneezing season. Last night, the same grains — most likely pine tree pollen — also stoked a lunar corona. Once my eyes were dark adapted and the Moon hidden by an arboreal occulting instrument (tree branch), it was easy to see.

A lunar pollen corona on May 30, 2015. The Moon was hidden by a utility pole.  Like the solar version, this one is elongated too. The shape is caused by pollen grains' elongated shape and the fact that they tend to orient themselves as they drift in the wind. Credit: Bob King
A lunar pollen corona on May 30, 2015. The Moon was hidden by a utility pole. Like the solar version, this one was also oval and measured about 3.5° across. The shape is caused by elongated pollen grains fact that orient themselves as they drift in the wind. Credit: Bob King

One of things you’ll notice right away about these biological bullseyes is that they’re not circular. Pollen coronas are oval because the pollen particles are elongated rather than spherical like water droplets. When light from the moon or sun strikes pollen, the minute grains diffract the light into a series of closely-spaced colored rings. I’ve read that pine and birch produce the best coronas, but spruce, alder and and others will work, too.

And here’s another amazing thing about these coronas. You don’t need a transparent medium to produce them. No ice, no water. All that’s necessary are very small, similarly-shaped objects. Light waves are scattered directly off their surfaces; the waves interfere with one another to create a diffraction pattern of colored rings.

A lunar pollen corona photographed on June 22, 2008 displays “bumps” or extensions at approximately 90° angles around its periphery. Credit: Bob King

Pollen coronas tend to become more elongated when the Sun or Moon is closer to the horizon, so look be on the lookout during those times for more extreme shapes. For some reason I’ve yet to discover,  pollen disks sometimes exhibit “bumps” or extensions at their tops, bottoms and sides.

So many of us suffer from allergies, perhaps the glowing presence of what’s causing all the inflammation will serve as partial compensation for our misery.

Andromeda and Milky Way Might Collide Sooner Than We Think

The merger of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy won’t happen for another 4 billion years, but the recent discovery of a massive halo of hot gas around Andromeda may mean our galaxies are already touching. University of Notre Dame astrophysicist Nicholas Lehner led a team of scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope to identify an enormous halo of hot, ionized gas at least 2 million light years in diameter surrounding the galaxy.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the largest member of a ragtag collection of some 54 galaxies, including the Milky Way, called the Local Group. With a trillion stars — twice as many as the Milky Way — it shines 25% brighter and can easily be seen with the naked eye from suburban and rural skies.

Quasars are distant, brilliant sources of light, believed to occur when a massive black hole in the center of a galaxy feeds on gas and stars. As the black hole consumes the material, it emits intense radiation, which is then detected as a quasar. These photos, taken by Hubble, show them as brilliant "stars" in the cores of six different galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA
Six examples of quasars photographed with the Hubble. Quasars are distant, brilliant sources of light, believed to occur when a massive black hole in the center of a galaxy feeds on gas and stars. As the black hole consumes the material, it emits intense radiation, which is then detected as a quasar. Lehner and team measured Andromeda’s halo by studying how its gas affected the light from 18 different quasars.  Credit: NASA/ESA

Think about this for a moment. If the halo extends at least a million light years in our direction, our two galaxies are MUCH closer to touching that previously thought. Granted, we’re only talking halo interactions at first, but the two may be mingling molecules even now if our galaxy is similarly cocooned.

Lehner describes halos as the “gaseous atmospheres of galaxies”.  Despite its enormous size, Andromeda’s nimbus is virtually invisible. To find and study the halo, the team sought out quasars, distant star-like objects that radiate tremendous amounts of energy as matter funnels into the supermassive black holes in their cores. The brightest quasar, 3C273 in Virgo, can be seen in a 6-inch telescope! Their brilliant, pinpoint nature make them perfect probes.

To detect Andromeda's halo, Lehner and team studied how the light of 18 quasars (five shown here) was absorbed by the galaxy's gas. Credit: NASA
To detect Andromeda’s halo, Lehner and team studied how the light of 18 quasars (five shown here) was absorbed by the galaxy’s gas. Credit: NASA

“As the light from the quasars travels toward Hubble, the halo’s gas will absorb some of that light and make the quasar appear a little darker in just a very small wavelength range,” said J. Christopher Howk , associate professor of physics at Notre Dame and co-investigator. “By measuring the dip in brightness, we can tell how much halo gas from M31 there is between us and that quasar.”

Astronomers have observed halos around 44 other galaxies but never one as massive as Andromeda where so many quasars are available to clearly define its extent. The previous 44 were all extremely distant galaxies, with only a single quasar or data point to determine halo size and structure.

Andromeda’s close and huge with lots of quasars peppering its periphery. The team drew from about five years’ worth of observations of archived Hubble data to find many of the 18 objects needed for a good sample.

This illustration shows a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years. In this image, representing Earth's night sky in 3.75 billion years, Andromeda (left) fills the field of view and begins to distort the Milky Way with tidal pull. (Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger)
This illustration shows a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years. In this image, representing Earth’s night sky in 3.75 billion years, Andromeda (left) fills the field of view and begins to distort the Milky Way with tidal pull. Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger

The halo is estimated to contain half the mass of the stars in the Andromeda galaxy itself, in the form of a hot, diffuse gas. Simulations suggest that it formed at the same time as the rest of the galaxy. Although mostly composed of ionized hydrogen — naked protons and electrons —  Andromeda’s aura is also rich in heavier elements, probably supplied by supernovae. They erupt within the visible galaxy and violently blow good stuff like iron, silicon, oxygen and other familiar elements far into space. Over Andromeda’s lifetime, nearly half of all the heavy elements made by its stars have been expelled far beyond the galaxy’s 200,000-light-year-diameter stellar disk.

You might wonder if galactic halos might account for some or much of the still-mysterious dark matter. Probably not. While dark matter still makes up the bulk of the solid material in the universe, astronomers have been trying to account for the lack of visible matter in galaxies as well. Halos now seem a likely contributor.

The next clear night you look up to spy Andromeda, know this: It’s closer than you think!

For more on the topic, here are links to Lehner’s paper in the Astrophysical Journal and the Hubble release.

The Physics Behind “Interstellar’s” Visual Effects Was So Good, it Led to a Scientific Discovery

While he was working on the film Interstellar, executive producer Kip Thorne was tasked with creating the black hole that would be central to the plot. As a theoretical physicist, he also wanted to create something that was truly realistic and as close to the real thing as movie-goers would ever see.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan – the film’s director – wanted to create something that would be a visually-mesmerizing experience. As you can see from the image above, they certainly succeeded as far as the aesthetics were concerned. But even more impressive was how the creation of this fictitious black hole led to an actual scientific discovery.

In short, in order to accurately create a visual for the story’s black hole, Kip Thorne produced an entirely new set of equations which guided the special effects team’s rendering software. The end result was a visual representation that accurately depicts what a wormhole/black hole would look like in space.

Artist's conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library
Artist’s conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

This was no easy task, since black holes (as the name suggests) suck in all light around them, warp space and time, and are invisible to all but X-ray telescopes (due to the bursts of energy they periodically emit). But after a year of work by 30 people and thousands of computers, Thorne and the movie’s special effects team managed to create something entirely realistic.

Relying entirely on known scientific principles, the black hole appears to spin at nearly the speed of light, dragging bits of the universe along with it. Based on the idea that it was once a star that collapsed into a singularity, the hole forms a glowing ring that orbits around a spheroidal maelstrom of light, which seems to curve over the top and under the bottom simultaneously.

To simulate the accretion disk, the special effects team generated a flat, multicolored ring and positioned it around their spinning black hole. Then something very weird and inspiring happened.

McConaughey explores another world in Interstellar (top). Thorne’s diagram of how a black hole distorts light. Credit: Kip Thorne
Thorne’s diagram of how a black hole distorts light. Credit: Kip Thorne

“We found that warping space around the black hole also warps the accretion disk,” explained Paul Franklin, a senior supervisor of Academy Award-winning effects house Double Negative. “So rather than looking like Saturn’s rings around a black sphere, the light creates this extraordinary halo.”

The Double Negative team thought it must be a bug in the renderer. But Thorne realized that they had correctly modeled a phenomenon inherent in the math he’d supplied.

“This is our observational data,” he said of the movie’s visualizations. “That’s the way nature behaves. Period.” Thorne also stated that he thinks he can get at least two published articles out of it.

But more important than that is the fact that Thorne, a thoroughgoing scientist and lover of the mysteries of space and physics, has a chance to show a mass audience some real, accurate science.

The movie premiers in North America on November 7th.

Christopher Nolan and Kip Thorne explain the science behind creating the movie’s black hole.

Further reading: Wired

If Pigs Could Fly – A Quick Guide to Solar Halos and Other Curiosities

Call it a porcine occultation. It took nearly a year but I finally got help from the ornamental pig in my wife’s flower garden. This weekend it became the preferred method for blocking the sun to better see and photograph a beautiful pair of solar halos. We often associate solar and lunar halos with winter because they require ice crystals for their formation, but they happen during all seasons. 

Nature keeps it simple. Light refracting through or reflecting from six-sided plate and column (pencil-shaped) ice crystals in high clouds is responsible for almost all halos and their variations.
Nature keeps it simple. Light refracting through or reflecting from six-sided plate and column (pencil-shaped) ice crystals in high clouds is responsible for almost all halos and their variations.

Lower clouds, like the puffy cumulus dotting the sky on a summer day, are composed of water droplets. A typical cumulus spans about a kilometer and contains 1.1 million pounds of water. Cirrostratus clouds are much higher (18,000 feet and up) and colder and formed instead of ice crystals. They’re often the first clouds to betray an incoming frontal system.

Cirrostratus are thin and fibrous and give the blue sky a milky look.  Most halos and related phenomena originate in countless millions of hexagonal plate and pencil-shaped ice crystals wafting about like diamond dust in these often featureless clouds.

This is the top end of a hexagonal column-shaped ice crystal. Light refracting (bending) through billions of these crystals spreads out to form a typical solar halo. Credit: Donalbein
This is the top end of a hexagonal column-shaped ice crystal. Light refracting (bending) through the 60-degree angled faces of millions of these crystals is concentrated into a ring of light 22 degrees from the sun. As light leaves the crystal, the shorter blue and purple wavelengths are refracted slightly more than red, tinting the outer edge of the halo blue and inner edge red. Credit: Donalbein with additions by the author

In winter, the sun is generally low in the sky, making it hard to miss a halo. Come summer, when the sun is much higher up, halo spotters have to be more deliberate and make a point to look up more often. The 22-degree halo is the most common; it’s the inner of the two halos in the photo above. With a radius of 22 degrees, an outstretched hand at arm’s length will comfortably fit between sun and circle.

Light refracted or bent through millions of randomly oriented pencil-shaped crystals exits at angles from 22 degrees up to 50 degrees, however most of the light is concentrated around 22 degrees, resulting in the familiar 22-degree radius halo. No light gets bent and concentrated at angles fewer than 22 degrees, which is why the sky looks darker inside the halo than outside. Finally, a small fraction of the light exits the crystals between 22 and 50 degrees creating a soft outer edge to the circle as well as a large, more diffuse disk of light as far as 50 degrees from the sun.

The sun on Dec. 6, 2013 with a 22-degree halo and two luminous canine companions or sundogs. Credit: Bob King
The sun on Dec. 6, 2013 with a 22-degree halo and two luminous canine companions or sundogs. Similar halos and ‘moondogs’ can be seen around a bright moon. Credit: Bob King

Sundogs, also called mock suns or parhelia, are brilliant and often colorful patches of light that accompany the sun on either side of a halo. Not as frequent as halos, they’re still common enough to spot half a dozen times or more a year. Depending on how extensive the cloud cover is, you might see only one sundog instead of the more typical pair. Sundogs form when light refracts through hexagonal plate-shaped ice crystals with their flat sides parallel to the ground. They appear when the sun is near the horizon and on the same horizontal plane as the ice crystals. As in halos, red light is refracted less than blue, coloring the dog’s ‘head’ red and its hind quarters blue. Mock sun is an apt term as occasionally a sundog will shine with the intensity of a second sun. They’re responsible for some of the daytime ‘UFO’ sightings. Check this one one out on YouTube.

An especially colorful sundog with a 'tail' from 2008. Credit: Bob King
An especially colorful sundog with a ‘tail’. Red light is bent less than blue as it emerges from the ice crystal, tinting the sundog’s inner edge. Blue is bent more and colors the outer half. If you look closely, all colors of the rainbow are seen. Credit: Bob King

Wobbly crystals make for taller sundogs. Like real dogs, ice crystal sundogs can grow tails. These are part of the much larger parhelic circle, a rarely-seen narrow band of light encircling the entire sky at the sun’s altitude formed when millions of both plate and column crystals reflect light from their vertical faces. Short tails extend from each mock sun in the photo above.

A couple hours after the flying pig image, the sun was beyond 50 degrees altitude. The circumscribed halo had vanished! Credit: Bob King
About 2 hours after the flying pig image, the sun climbed beyond 50 degrees altitude. The circumscribed halo vanished! Credit: Bob King

There’s almost no end to atmospheric ice antics. Many are rare like the giant 46-degree halo or the 9 and 18-degree halos formed from pyramidal ice crystals. Oftentimes halos are accompanied by arcs or modified arcs as in the flying pig image.  When the sun is low, you’ll occasionally see an arc shaped like a bird in flight tangent to the top of the halo and rarely, to its bottom. When the sun reaches an altitude of 29 degrees, these tangent arcs – both upper and lower – change shape and merge into a circumscribed halo wrapped around and overlapping the top and bottom of the main halo. At 50 degrees altitude and beyond, the circumscribed halo disappears … for a time. If the clouds persist, you can watch it return when the sun dips below 29 degrees and the two arcs separate again.

Maybe you’re not a halo watcher, but anyone who keeps an eye on the weather and studies the daytime sky in preparation for a night of skywatching can enjoy these icy appetizers.

Astronomers Discover Milky Way’s Hot Halo

Artist’s illustration of a hot gas halo enveloping the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss; NASA/CXC/Ohio State/A.Gupta et al.)

Our galaxy — and the nearby Large and Small Magellanic Clouds as well — appears to be surrounded by an enormous halo of hot gas, several hundred times hotter than the surface of the Sun and with an equivalent mass of up to 60 billion Suns, suggesting that other galaxies may be similarly encompassed and providing a clue to the mystery of the galaxy’s missing baryons.

The findings were reported today by a research team using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

In the artist’s rendering above our Milky Way galaxy is seen at the center of a cloud of hot gas. This cloud has been detected in measurements made with Chandra as well as with the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory and Japan’s Suzaku satellite. The illustration shows it to extend outward over 300,000 light-years — and it may actually be even bigger than that.

While observing bright x-ray sources hundreds of millions of light-years distant, the researchers found that oxygen ions in the immediate vicinity of our galaxy were “selectively absorbing” some of the x-rays. They were then able to measure the temperature of the halo of gas responsible for the absorption.

The scientists determined the temperature of the halo is between 1 million and 2.5 million kelvins — a few hundred times hotter than the surface of the Sun.

But even with an estimated mass anywhere between 10 billion and 60 billion Suns, the density of the halo at that scale is still so low that any similar structure around other galaxies would escape detection. Still, the presence of such a large halo of hot gas, if confirmed, could reveal where the missing baryonic matter in our galaxy has been hiding — a mystery that’s been plaguing astronomers for over a decade.

Unrelated to dark matter or dark energy, the missing baryons issue was discovered when astronomers estimated the number of atoms and ions that would have been present in the Universe 10 billion years ago. But current measurements yield only about half as many as were present 10 billion years ago, meaning somehow nearly half the baryonic matter in the Universe has since disappeared.

Recent studies have proposed that the missing matter is tied up in the comic web — vast clouds and strands of gas and dust that surround and connect galaxies and galactic clusters. The findings announced today from Chandra support this, and suggest that the missing ions could be gathered around other galaxies in similarly hot halos.

Even though previous studies have indicated halos of warm gas existing around our galaxy as well as others, this new research shows a much hotter, much more massive halo than ever detected.

“Our work shows that, for reasonable values of parameters and with reasonable assumptions, the Chandra observations imply a huge reservoir of hot gas around the Milky Way,” said study co-author Smita Mathur of Ohio State University in Columbus. “It may extend for a few hundred thousand light-years around the Milky Way or it may extend farther into the surrounding local group of galaxies. Either way, its mass appears to be very large.”

Read the full news release from NASA here, and learn more about the Chandra mission here. (The team’s paper can be found on arXiv.org.)

Inset image: NASA’s Chandra spacecraft (NASA/CXC/NGST)

NOTE: the initial posting of this story mentioned that this halo could be dark matter. That was incorrect and not implied by the actual research, as dark matter is non-baryonic matter while the hot gas in the halo is baryonic — i.e., “normal” —  matter. Edited. – JM