Smaller, Ground-Based Telescopes can Study Exoplanet Atmospheres too

An artist's illustration of exoplanet Kelt-9b. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next step to understanding exoplanets is to understand their atmospheres better. Astronomers can determine a planet’s mass, density, and other physical characteristics fairly routinely. But characterizing their atmospheres is more complicated.

Astronomers have had some success studying exoplanet atmospheres, and spacecraft like the James Webb Space Telescope and the ESA’s ARIEL mission will help a lot. But there are thousands of confirmed exoplanets with many more to come, and the Webb has many demands on its time.

Can smaller, ground-based telescopes play a role in understanding exoplanet atmospheres?

Continue reading “Smaller, Ground-Based Telescopes can Study Exoplanet Atmospheres too”

How Far Does Light Travel in a Year?

Diagram showing the distance light travels between the Sun and the Earth. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Brews ohare

The Universe is an extremely big place. As astronomers looked farther into space over the centuries, and deeper into the past, they came to understand just how small and insignificant our planet and our species seem by comparison. At the same time, ongoing investigations into electromagnetism and distant stars led scientists to deduce what the the speed of light is – and that it is the fastest speed obtainable.

As such, astronomers have taken to using the the distance light travels within a single year (aka. a light year) to measure distances on the interstellar and intergalactic scale. But how far does light travel in a year? Basically, it moves at a speed of 299,792,458 meters per second (1080 million km/hour; 671 million mph), which works out to about 9,460.5 trillion km (5,878.5 trillion miles) per year.

The Speed of Light:

Calculating the speed of light has been a preoccupation for scientists for many centuries. And prior to the 17th century, there was disagreement over whether the speed of light was finite, or if it moved from one spot to the next instantaneously. In 1676, Danish astronomer Ole Romer settled the argument when his observations of the apparent motion of Jupiter’s moon Io revealed that the speed of light was finite.

Light moves at different wavelengths, represented here by the different colors seen in a prism. Credit: NASA/ESA

From his observations, famed Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens calculated the speed of light at 220,000 km/s (136,701 mi/s). Over the course of the nest two centuries, the speed of light was refined further and further, producing estimates that ranged from about 299,000 to 315,000 km/s (185,790 to 195,732 mi/s).

This was followed by James Clerk Maxwell, who proposed in 1865 that light was an electromagnetic wave. In his theory of electromagnetism, the speed of light was represented as c. And then in 1905, Albert Einstein proposed his theory of Special Relativity, which postulated that the speed of light (c) was constant, regardless of the inertial reference frame of the observer or the motion of the light source.

By 1975, after centuries of refined measurements, the speed of light in a vacuum was calculated at 299,792,458 meters per second. Ongoing research also revealed that light travels at different wavelengths and is made up of subatomic particles known as photons, which have no mass and behave as both particles and waves.


As already noted, the speed of light (expressed in meters per second) means that light travels a distance of 9,460,528,000,000 km (or 5,878,499,817,000 miles) in a single year. This distance is known as a “light year”, and is used to measure objects in the Universe that are at a considerable distances from us.

Examples of objects in our Universe, and the scale of their distances, based on the light year as a standard measure. Credit: Bob King.

For example, the nearest star to Earth (Proxima Centauri) is roughly 4.22 light-years distant. The center of the Milky Way Galaxy is 26,000 light-years away, while the nearest large galaxy (Andromeda) is 2.5 million light-years away. To date, the candidate for the farthest galaxy from Earth is MACS0647-JD, which is located approximately 13.3 billion light years away.

And the Cosmic Microwave Background, the relic radiation which is believed to be leftover from the Big Bang, is located some 13.8 billion light years away. The discovery of this radiation not only bolstered the Big Bang Theory, but also gave astronomers an accurate assessment of the age of the Universe. This brings up another important point about measuring cosmic distances in light years, which is the fact that space and time are intertwined.

You see, when we see the light coming from a distant object, we’re actually looking back in time. When we see the light from a star located 400 light-years away, we’re actually seeing light that was emitted from the star 400 years ago. Hence, we’re seeing the star as it looked 400 years ago, not as it appears today. As a result, looking at objects billions of light-years from Earth is to see billions of light-years back in time.

Yes, light travels at an extremely fast speed. But given the sheer size and scale of the Universe, it can still take billions of years from certain points in the Universe to reach us here on Earth. Hence why knowing how long it takes for light to travel a single year is so useful to scientists. Not only does it allow us to comprehend the scale of the Universe, it also allows us to chart the process of cosmic evolution.

We have written many articles about the speed of light here at Universe Today. Here’s How Far is a Light Year?, What is the Speed of Light?, How Much Stuff is in a Light Year?, How Does Light Travel?, and How Far Can You See in the Universe?

Want more info on light-years? Here’s an article about light-years for HowStuffWorks, and here’s an answer from PhysLink.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast on this topic. Listen here, Episode 10: Measuring Distance in the Universe.


Finite Light — Why We Always Look Back In Time

Credit: Bob King

Beads of rainwater on a poplar leaf act like lenses, focusing light and enlarging the leaf’s network of veins. Moving at 186,000 miles per second, light from the leaf arrives at your eye 0.5 nanosecond later. A blink of an eye takes 600,000 times as much time! Credit: Bob King

My attention was focused on beaded water on a poplar leaf. How gemmy and bursting with the morning’s sunlight. I moved closer, removed my glasses and noticed that each drop magnified a little patch of veins that thread and support the leaf.

Focusing the camera lens, I wondered how long it took the drops’ light to reach my eye. Since I was only about six inches away and light travels at 186,000 miles per second or 11.8 inches every billionth of a second (one nanosecond), the travel time amounted to 0.5 nanoseconds. Darn close to simultaneous by human standards but practically forever for positronium hydride, an exotic molecule made of a positron, electron and hydrogen atom. The average lifetime of a PsH molecule is just 0.5 nanoseconds.

Light takes about 35 microseconds to arrive from a transcontinental jet and its contrail. Credit: Bob King

In our everyday life, the light from familiar faces, roadside signs and the waiter whose attention you’re trying to get reaches our eyes in nanoseconds. But if you happen to look up to see the tiny dark shape of a high-flying airplane trailed by the plume of its contrail, the light takes about 35,000 nanoseconds or 35 microseconds to travel the distance. Still not much to piddle about.

The space station orbits the Earth in outer space some 250 miles overhead. During an overhead pass, light from the orbiting science lab fires up your retinas 1.3 milliseconds later. In comparison, a blink of the eye lasts about 300 milliseconds (1/3 of a second) or 230 times longer!

The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment placed on the Moon by the Apollo 14 astronauts. Observatories beam a laser to the small array, which reflects a bit of the light back. Measuring the time delay yields the Moon’s distance to within about a millimeter. At the Moon’s surface the laser beam spreads out to 4 miles wide and only one photon is reflected back to the telescope every few seconds. Credit: NASA

Light time finally becomes more tangible when we look at the Moon, a wistful 1.3 light seconds away at its average distance of 240,000 miles. To feel how long this is, stare at the Moon at the next opportunity and count out loud: one one thousand one. Retroreflecting devices placed on the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts are still used by astronomers to determine the moon’s precise distance. They beam a laser at the mirrors and time the round trip.

Venus as a super-thin crescent only 10 hours before conjunction on March 25. The planet was just 2.3 light minutes from the Earth at the time. Credit: Shahrin Ahmad

Of the eight planets, Venus comes closest to Earth, and it does so during inferior conjunction, which coincidentally occurred on March 25. On that date only 26.1 million miles separated the two planets, a distance amounting to 140 seconds or 2.3 minutes — about the time it takes to boil water for tea. Mars, another close-approaching planet, currently stands on nearly the opposite side of the Sun from Earth.

With a current distance of 205 million miles, a radio or TV signal, which are both forms of light, broadcast to the Red Planet would take 18.4 minutes to arrive. Now we can see why engineers pre-program a landing sequence into a Mars’ probe’s computer to safely land it on the planet’s surface. Any command – or change in commands – we might send from Earth would arrive too late. Once a lander settles on the planet and sends back telemetry to communicate its condition, mission control personnel must bite their fingernails for many minutes waiting for light to limp back and bring word.

Before we speed off to more distant planets, let’s consider what would happen if the Sun had a catastrophic malfunction and suddenly ceased to shine. No worries. At least not for 8.3 minutes, the time it takes for light, or the lack of it, to bring the bad news.

Pluto and Charon lie 3.1 billion miles from Earth, a long way for light to travel. We see them as they were more than 4 hours ago.  NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Light from Jupiter takes 37 minutes to reach Earth; Pluto and Charon are so remote that a signal from the “double planet” requires 4.6 hours to get here. That’s more than a half-day of work on the job, and we’ve only made it to the Kuiper Belt.

Let’s press on to the nearest star(s), the Alpha Centauri system. If 4.6 hours of light time seemed a long time to wait, how about 4.3 years? If you think hard, you might remember what you were up to just before New Year’s Eve in 2012. About that time, the light arriving tonight from Alpha Centauri left that star and began its earthward journey. To look at the star then is to peer back in time to late 2012.

The Summer Triangle rises fully in the eastern sky around 3 o’clock in the morning in late March. Created with Stellarium

But we barely scrape the surface. Let’s take the Summer Triangle, a figure that will soon come to dominate the eastern sky along with the beautiful summer Milky Way that appears to flow through it. Altair, the southernmost apex of the triangle is nearby, just 16.7 light years from Earth; Vega, the brightest a bit further at 25 and Deneb an incredible 3,200 light years away.

We can relate to the first two stars because the light we see on a given evening isn’t that “old.” Most of us can conjure up an image of our lives and the state of world affairs 16 and 25 years ago. But Deneb is exceptional. Photons departed this distant supergiant (3,200 light years) around the year 1200 B.C. during the Trojan War at the dawn of the Iron Age. That’s some look-back time!

Rho Cassiopeia, currently at magnitude +4.5, is one of the most distant stars visible with the naked eye. Its light requires about 8,200 years to reach our eyes. This star, a variable, is enormous with a radius about 450 times that of the Sun. Credit: IAU/Sky and Telescope (left); Anynobody, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia

One of the most distant naked eye stars is Rho Cassiopeiae, yellow variable some 450 times the size of the Sun located 8,200 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. Right now, the star is near maximum and easy to see at nightfall in the northwestern sky. Its light whisks us back to the end of the last great ice age at a time and the first cave drawings, more than 4,000 years before the first Egyptian pyramid would be built.

This is the digital message (annotated here) sent by Frank Drake to M13 in 1974 using the Arecibo radio telescope.

On and on it goes: the nearest large galaxy, Andromeda, lies 2.5 million light years from us and for many is the faintest, most distant object visible with the naked eye. To think that looking at the galaxy takes us back to the time our distant ancestors first used simple tools. Light may be the fastest thing in the universe, but these travel times hint at the true enormity of space.

Let’s go a little further. On November 16, 1974 a digital message was beamed from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to the rich star cluster M13 in Hercules 25,000 light years away. The message was created by Dr. Frank Drake, then professor of astronomy at Cornell, and contained basic information about humanity, including our numbering system, our location in the solar system and the composition of DNA, the molecule of life. It consisted of 1,679 binary bits representing ones and zeroes and was our first deliberate communication sent to extraterrestrials. Today the missive is 42 light years away, just barely out the door.

Galaxy GN-z11, shown in the inset, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the big bang, when the universe was only three percent of its current age. The galaxy is ablaze with bright, young, blue stars, but looks red in this image because its light has been stretched to longer spectral wavelengths by the expansion of the universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Oesch, G. Brammer, P. van Dokkum, and G. Illingworth

Let’s end our time machine travels with the most distant object we’ve seen in the universe, a galaxy named GN-z11 in Ursa Major. We see it as it was just 400 million years after the Big Bang (13.4 billion years ago) which translates to a proper distance from Earth of 32 billion light years. The light astronomers captured on their digital sensors left the object before there was an Earth, a Solar System or even a Milky Way galaxy!

Thanks to light’s finite speed we can’t help but always see things as they were. You might wonder if there’s any way to see something right now without waiting for the light to get here? There’s just one way, and that’s to be light itself.

From the perspective of a photon or light particle, which travels at the speed of light, distance and time completely fall away. Everything happens instantaneously and travel time to anywhere, everywhere is zero seconds. In essence, the whole universe becomes a point. Crazy and paradoxical as this sounds, the theory of relativity allows it because an object traveling at the speed of light experiences infinite time dilation and infinite space contraction.

Just something to think about the next time you meet another’s eyes in conversation. Or look up at the stars.

How Does Light Travel?

Light moves at different wavelengths, represented here by the different colors seen in a prism. Credit: NASA and ESA

Ever since Democritus – a Greek philosopher who lived between the 5th and 4th century’s BCE – argued that all of existence was made up of tiny indivisible atoms, scientists have been speculating as to the true nature of light. Whereas scientists ventured back and forth between the notion that light was a particle or a wave until the modern era, the 20th century led to breakthroughs that showed us that it behaves as both.

These included the discovery of the electron, the development of quantum theory, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. However, there remains many unanswered questions about light, many of which arise from its dual nature. For instance, how is it that light can be apparently without mass, but still behave as a particle? And how can it behave like a wave and pass through a vacuum, when all other waves require a medium to propagate?

Theory of Light to the 19th Century:

During the Scientific Revolution, scientists began moving away from Aristotelian scientific theories that had been seen as accepted canon for centuries. This included rejecting Aristotle’s theory of light, which viewed it as being a disturbance in the air (one of his four “elements” that composed matter), and embracing the more mechanistic view that light was composed of indivisible atoms.

In many ways, this theory had been previewed by atomists of Classical Antiquity – such as Democritus and Lucretius – both of whom viewed light as a unit of matter given off by the sun. By the 17th century, several scientists emerged who accepted this view, stating that light was made up of discrete particles (or “corpuscles”). This included Pierre Gassendi, a contemporary of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and most famously, Sir Isaac Newton.

The first edition of Newton's Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light (1704). Credit: Public Domain.
The first edition of Newton’s Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light (1704). Credit: Public Domain.

Newton’s corpuscular theory was an elaboration of his view of reality as an interaction of material points through forces. This theory would remain the accepted scientific view for more than 100 years, the principles of which were explained in his 1704 treatise “Opticks, or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections, and Colours of Light“. According to Newton, the principles of light could be summed as follows:

  • Every source of light emits large numbers of tiny particles known as corpuscles in a medium surrounding the source.
  • These corpuscles are perfectly elastic, rigid, and weightless.

This represented a challenge to “wave theory”, which had been advocated by 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. . These theories were first communicated in 1678 to the Paris Academy of Sciences and were published in 1690 in his Traité de la lumière (“Treatise on Light“). In it, he argued a revised version of Descartes views, in which the speed of light is infinite and propagated by means of spherical waves emitted along the wave front.

Double-Slit Experiment:

By the early 19th century, scientists began to break with corpuscular theory. This was due in part to the fact that corpuscular theory failed to adequately explain the diffraction, interference and polarization of light, but was also because of various experiments that seemed to confirm the still-competing view that light behaved as a wave.

The most famous of these was arguably the Double-Slit Experiment, which was originally conducted by English polymath Thomas Young in 1801 (though Sir Isaac Newton is believed to have conducted something similar in his own time). In Young’s version of the experiment, he used a slip of paper with slits cut into it, and then pointed a light source at them to measure how light passed through it.

According to classical (i.e. Newtonian) particle theory, the results of the experiment should have corresponded to the slits, the impacts on the screen appearing in two vertical lines. Instead, the results showed that the coherent beams of light were interfering, creating a pattern of bright and dark bands on the screen. This contradicted classical particle theory, in which particles do not interfere with each other, but merely collide.

The only possible explanation for this pattern of interference was that the light beams were in fact behaving as waves. Thus, this experiment dispelled the notion that light consisted of corpuscles and played a vital part in the acceptance of the wave theory of light. However subsequent research, involving the discovery of the electron and electromagnetic radiation, would lead to scientists considering yet again that light behaved as a particle too, thus giving rise to wave-particle duality theory.

Electromagnetism and Special Relativity:

Prior to the 19th and 20th centuries, the speed of light had already been determined. The first recorded measurements were performed by Danish astronomer Ole Rømer, who demonstrated in 1676 using light measurements from Jupiter’s moon Io to show that light travels at a finite speed (rather than instantaneously).

Prof. Albert Einstein uses the blackboard as he delivers the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the auditorium of the Carnegie Institue of Technology Little Theater at Pittsburgh, Pa., on Dec. 28, 1934. Using three symbols, for matter, energy and the speed of light respectively, Einstein offers additional proof of a theorem propounded by him in 1905 that matter and energy are the same thing in different forms. (AP Photo)
Prof. Albert Einstein delivering the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Dec. 28th, 1934. Credit: AP Photo

By the late 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell proposed that light was an electromagnetic wave, and devised several equations (known as Maxwell’s equations) to describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents. By conducting measurements of different types of radiation (magnetic fields, ultraviolet and infrared radiation), he was able to calculate the speed of light in a vacuum (represented as c).

In 1905, Albert Einstein published “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, in which he advanced one of his most famous theories and overturned centuries of accepted notions and orthodoxies. In his paper, he postulated that the speed of light was the same in all inertial reference frames, regardless of the motion of the light source or the position of the observer.

Exploring the consequences of this theory is what led him to propose his theory of Special Relativity, which reconciled Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics, simplified the mathematical calculations, and accorded with the directly observed speed of light and accounted for the observed aberrations. It also demonstrated that the speed of light had relevance outside the context of light and electromagnetism.

For one, it introduced the idea that major changes occur when things move close the speed of light, including the time-space frame of a moving body appearing to slow down and contract in the direction of motion when measured in the frame of the observer. After centuries of increasingly precise measurements, the speed of light was determined to be 299,792,458 m/s in 1975.

Einstein and the Photon:

In 1905, Einstein also helped to resolve a great deal of confusion surrounding the behavior of electromagnetic radiation when he proposed that electrons are emitted from atoms when they absorb energy from light. Known as the photoelectric effect, Einstein based his idea on Planck’s earlier work with “black bodies” – materials that absorb electromagnetic energy instead of reflecting it (i.e. white bodies).

At the time, Einstein’s photoelectric effect was attempt to explain the “black body problem”, in which a black body emits electromagnetic radiation due to the object’s heat. This was a persistent problem in the world of physics, arising from the discovery of the electron, which had only happened eight years previous (thanks to British physicists led by J.J. Thompson and experiments using cathode ray tubes).

At the time, scientists still believed that electromagnetic energy behaved as a wave, and were therefore hoping to be able to explain it in terms of classical physics. Einstein’s explanation represented a break with this, asserting that electromagnetic radiation behaved in ways that were consistent with a particle – a quantized form of light which he named “photons”. For this discovery, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921.

Wave-Particle Duality:

Subsequent theories on the behavior of light would further refine this idea, which included French physicist Louis-Victor de Broglie calculating the wavelength at which light functioned. This was followed by Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” (which stated that measuring the position of a photon accurately would disturb measurements of it momentum and vice versa), and Schrödinger’s paradox that claimed that all particles have a “wave function”.

In accordance with quantum mechanical explanation, Schrodinger proposed that all the information about a particle (in this case, a photon) is encoded in its wave function, a complex-valued function roughly analogous to the amplitude of a wave at each point in space. At some location, the measurement of the wave function will randomly “collapse”, or rather “decohere”, to a sharply peaked function. This was illustrated in Schrödinger famous paradox involving a closed box, a cat, and a vial of poison (known as the “Schrödinger Cat” paradox).

In this illustration, one photon (purple) carries a million times the energy of another (yellow). Some theorists predict travel delays for higher-energy photons, which interact more strongly with the proposed frothy nature of space-time. Yet Fermi data on two photons from a gamma-ray burst fail to show this effect. The animation below shows the delay scientists had expected to observe. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet
Artist’s impression of two photons travelling at different wavelengths, resulting in different- colored light. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet

According to his theory, wave function also evolves according to a differential equation (aka. the Schrödinger equation). For particles with mass, this equation has solutions; but for particles with no mass, no solution existed. Further experiments involving the Double-Slit Experiment confirmed the dual nature of photons. where measuring devices were incorporated to observe the photons as they passed through the slits.

When this was done, the photons appeared in the form of particles and their impacts on the screen corresponded to the slits – tiny particle-sized spots distributed in straight vertical lines. By placing an observation device in place, the wave function of the photons collapsed and the light behaved as classical particles once more. As predicted by Schrödinger, this could only be resolved by claiming that light has a wave function, and that observing it causes the range of behavioral possibilities to collapse to the point where its behavior becomes predictable.

The development of Quantum Field Theory (QFT) was devised in the following decades to resolve much of the ambiguity around wave-particle duality. And in time, this theory was shown to apply to other particles and fundamental forces of interaction (such as weak and strong nuclear forces). Today, photons are part of the Standard Model of particle physics, where they are classified as boson – a class of subatomic particles that are force carriers and have no mass.

So how does light travel? Basically, traveling at incredible speeds (299 792 458 m/s) and at different wavelengths, depending on its energy. It also behaves as both a wave and a particle, able to propagate through mediums (like air and water) as well as space. It has no mass, but can still be absorbed, reflected, or refracted if it comes in contact with a medium. And in the end, the only thing that can truly divert it, or arrest it, is gravity (i.e. a black hole).

What we have learned about light and electromagnetism has been intrinsic to the revolution which took place in physics in the early 20th century, a revolution that we have been grappling with ever since. Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, we have learned much, but still have much to learn.

For instance, its interaction with gravity (along with weak and strong nuclear forces) remains a mystery. Unlocking this, and thus discovering a Theory of Everything (ToE) is something astronomers and physicists look forward to. Someday, we just might have it all figured out!

We have written many articles about light here at Universe Today. For example, here’s How Fast is the Speed of Light?, How Far is a Light Year?, What is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?

If you’d like more info on light, check out these articles from The Physics Hypertextbook and NASA’s Mission Science page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Interstellar Travel. Listen here, Episode 145: Interstellar Travel.

Astronomy Cast Ep. 398 – Seeing Things: Emitting, Reflecting, Ionizing Light Sources

Astronomers gather electromagnetic radiation with the telescopes: mostly visible light. But sometimes they’ve got to be clever about where they look for these elusive photons. Light can get emitted, absorbed, reflected, and each method tells astronomers a little more about what they’re looking at.
Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 398 – Seeing Things: Emitting, Reflecting, Ionizing Light Sources”

The Journey of Light, From the Stars to Your Eyes

The Milky Way from Earth. Image Credit: Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn (Weather and Sky Photography)

This week, millions of people will turn their eyes to the skies in anticipation of the 2015 Perseid meteor shower. But what happens on less eventful nights, when we find ourselves gazing upward simply to admire the deep, dark, star-spangled sky? Far away from the glow of civilization, we humans can survey thousands of tiny pinpricks of light. But how? Where does that light come from? How does it make its way to us? And how do our brains sort all that incoming energy into such a profoundly breathtaking sight?

Our story begins lightyears away, deep in the heart of a sun-like star, where gravity’s immense inward pressure keeps temperatures high and atoms disassembled. Free protons hurtle around the core, occasionally attaining the blistering energies necessary to overcome their electromagnetic repulsion, collide, and stick together in pairs of two.

Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb

So-called diprotons are unstable and tend to disband as quickly as they arise. And if it weren’t for the subatomic antics of the weak nuclear force, this would be the end of the line: no fusion, no starlight, no us. However, on very rare occasions, a process called beta decay transforms one proton in the pair into a neutron. This new partnership forms what is known as deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, and opens the door to further nuclear fusion reactions.

Indeed, once deuterium enters the mix, particle pileups happen far more frequently. A free proton slams into deuterium, creating helium-3. Additional impacts build upon one another to forge helium-4 and heavier elements like oxygen and carbon.

Such collisions do more than just build up more massive atoms; in fact, every impact listed above releases an enormous amount of energy in the form of gamma rays. These high-energy photons streak outward, providing thermonuclear pressure that counterbalances the star’s gravity. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of years later, battered, bruised, and energetically squelched from fighting their way through a sun-sized blizzard of other particles, they emerge from the star’s surface as visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light.


But this is only half the story. The light then has to stream across vast reaches of space in order to reach the Earth – a process that, provided the star of origin is in our own galaxy, can take anywhere from 4.2 years to many thousands of years! At least… from your perspective. Since photons are massless, they don’t experience any time at all! And even after eluding what, for any other massive entity in the Universe, would be downright interminable flight times, conditions still must align so that you can see even one twinkle of the light from a faraway star.

That is, it must be dark, and you must be looking up.

Credit: Bruce Blaus
Credit: Bruce Blaus

The incoming stream of photons then makes its way through your cornea and lens and onto your retina, a highly vascular layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye. There, each tiny packet of light impinges upon one of two types of photoreceptor cell: a rod, or a cone.

Most photons detected under the low-light conditions of stargazing will activate rod cells. These cells are so light-sensitive that, in dark enough conditions, they can be excited by a single photon! Rods cannot detect color, but are far more abundant than cones and are found all across the retina, including around the periphery.

The less numerous, more color-hungry cone cells are densely concentrated at the center of the retina, in a region called the fovea (this explains why dim stars that are visible in your side vision suddenly seem to disappear when you attempt to look at them straight-on). Despite their relative insensitivity, cone cells can be activated by very bright starlight, enabling you to perceive stars like Vega as blue and Betelgeuse as red.

But whether bright light or dim, every photon has the same endpoint once it reaches one of your eyes’ photoreceptors: a molecule of vitamin A, which is bound together with a specialized protein called an opsin. Vitamin A absorbs the light and triggers a signal cascade: ion channels open and charged particles rush across a membrane, generating an electrical impulse that travels up the optic nerve and into the brain. By the time this signal reaches your brain’s visual cortex, various neural pathways are already hard at work translating this complex biochemistry into what you once thought was a simple, intuitive, and poetic understanding of the heavens above…

The stars, they shine.

So the next time you go outside in the darker hours, take a moment to appreciate the great lengths it takes for just a single twinkle of light to travel from a series of nuclear reactions in the bustling center of a distant star, across the vastness of space and time, through your body’s electrochemical pathways, and into your conscious mind.

It gives every last one of those corny love songs new meaning, doesn’t it?

A Red Moon – NOT a Sign of the Apocalypse!

Composite picture of a dark red Moon during a total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA/ Johannes Schedler (Panther Observatory)

On most evenings, the Moon will appear as a bright yellow or white color in the night sky. But on occasion, the Moon can turn a beautiful and dramatic red, coppery color. Naturally, there are a number of superstitions associated with this stellar event. But to modern astronomers, a Red Moon is just another fascinating phenomenon that has a scientific explanation.

Since the earliest days of recorded history, the Moon has been believed to have a powerful influence over human and animal behavior. To the Romans, staring at a full Moon was thought to drive a person crazy – hence the term “lunatic”. Farmers in the past would plant their crops “by the moon”, which meant sowing their seeds in accordance with the Moon’s phases in the hopes of getting a better harvest.

So naturally, when the Moon turned red, people became wary. According to various Biblical passages, a Blood Moon was thought to be a bad omen. But of course, the Moon turns red on a semi-regular basis, and the world has yet to drown in fire. So what really accounts for a “Red Moon?” What causes Earth’s only satellite to turn the color of blood?

Ordinarily, the Moon appears as it does because it is reflecting light from the Sun. But on occasion, it will darken and acquire either a golden, copper, or even rusty-red color.

There are few situations that can cause a red Moon. The most common way to see the Moon turn red is when the Moon is low in the sky, just after moonrise or before it’s about to set below the horizon. Just like the Sun, light from the Moon has to pass through a larger amount of atmosphere when it’s down near the horizon, compared to when it’s overhead.

The Earth’s atmosphere can scatter sunlight, and since moonlight is just scattered sunlight, it can scatter that too. Red light can pass through the atmosphere and not get scattered much, while light at the blue end of the spectrum is more easily scattered. When you see a red moon, you’re seeing the red light that wasn’t scattered, but the blue and green light have been scattered away. That’s why the Moon looks red.

The second reason for a red Moon is if there’s some kind of particle in the air. A forest fire or volcanic eruption can fill the air with tiny particles that partially obscure light from the Sun and Moon. Once again, these particles tend to scatter blue and green light away, while permitting red light to pass through more easily. When you see a red moon, high up in the sky, it’s probably because there’s a large amount of dust in the air.

Depiction of the Sun's rays turning the Moon red. Image Credit: NASA/Mars Exploration
Depiction of the Sun’s rays turning the Moon red. Image Credit: NASA/Mars Exploration

A third – and dramatic – way to get a red Moon is during a lunar eclipse. This happens when the Moon is full and passes into Earth’s shadow (also known as the umbra), which darkens it. At that point, the Moon is no longer being illuminated by the Sun. However, the red light passing through the Earth’s atmosphere does reach the Moon, and is thus reflected off of it.

For those observing from the ground, the change in color will again be most apparent when the Moon appears low in the night sky, just after moonrise or before it’s about to set below the horizon. Once again, this is because our heavy atmosphere will scatter away the blue/green light and let the red light go straight through.

The reddish light projected on the Moon is much dimmer than the full white sunlight the Moon typically reflects back to us. That’s because the light is indirect and because the red-colored wavelengths are only a part of what makes up the white light from the sun that the Moon usually receives.

In other words, when you see a red Moon, you’re seeing the result of blue and green light that has been scattered away, and the red light remaining.

Path of the Moon through Earth's umbral and penumbral shadows during the Total Lunar Eclipse of April 15, 2014. Image Credit: NASA/Eclipse
Path of the Moon through Earth’s umbral and penumbral shadows during the Total Lunar Eclipse of April 15, 2014. Image Credit: NASA/Eclipse Website

And that’s the various ways how we get a Red Moon in the night sky. Needless to say, our ancient forebears were a little nervous about this celestial phenomenon occurrence.

For example, Revelations 6:12/13 says that a Red Moon is a sign of the apocalypse: “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.”

But rest assured that if you see one, it’s not the end of the world. The Sun and Moon will rise again. And be sure to check out this Weekly Space Hangout, where the April 4th eclipse is discussed:

We have covered lunar eclipses many times on Universe Today, and often explain the red Moon phenomenon. Here’s another good explanation of the science behind a Red Moon, and why the recent series of lunar eclipses in 2014 and 2015 (known as a tetrad) do not mean anything apocalyptic, and here’s another article about how to see a lunar eclipse. Here’s an article that includes a stunning array of images of the Moon during an eclipse in 2014.

Of course, NASA has some great explanations of the red Moon effect during a lunar eclipse. Here’s another one.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Sources: NASA Science: Lunar Eclipse, NASA: Mars Exploration, Discovery News, NASA: Eclipse Website