Archive for December, 2010

Red, Red Moon and Other Lunar Eclipse Phenomena

Monday, December 20th, 2010

By Dr. David Diner

Total Lunar EclipseTiny airborne particles, or aerosols, can affect the appearance of the moon during a total lunar eclipse, sometimes giving it a reddish hue. Copyright Ian Sharp

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth is positioned between the sun and the moon. Although the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow, the lunar disk remains partially illuminated by sunlight that is refracted and scattered by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Refraction is the bending of light that occurs when the rays pass through media of different densities (our atmosphere is more dense near the surface and less dense higher up). Scattering of sunlight by molecules of air also deflects the light into different directions, and this occurs with much greater efficiency at shorter (bluer) wavelengths, which is why the daylight sky appears blue. As we view the sun near sunrise or sunset the light traverses a longer path through the atmosphere than at midday, and when the air is relatively clear, the absence of shorter wavelengths causes the solar disk to appear orange.

Tiny airborne particles, also known as aerosols, also scatter sunlight. The relative efficiency of the scattering at different wavelengths depends on the size and composition of the particles. Pollution and dust in the lower atmosphere tends to subdue the color of the rising or setting sun, whereas fine smoke particles or tiny aerosols lofted to high altitudes during a major volcanic eruption can deepen the color to an intense shade of red.

If you were standing on the Moon’s surface during a lunar eclipse, you would see the Sun setting and rising behind the Earth, and you’d observe the refracted and scattered solar rays as they pass through the atmosphere surrounding our planet. Viewed from the Earth, these rays “fill in” the Earth’s shadow cast upon the lunar surface, imparting the Moon’s disk with a faint orange or reddish glow. Just as we sometimes observe sunrises and sunsets with different shades of orange, pink or red due to the presence of different types of aerosols, the color of the eclipsed lunar disk is also affected by the types of particles that are present in the Earth’s atmosphere at the time the eclipse occurs.

Lunar Eclipse, the Moon’s Interior, and the Holy GRAIL

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

By Sami Asmar

Earth's moon

In addition to the awesome views they offer, lunar eclipses have always provided scientific clues about the moon’s shape, location and even surface composition. Although there will continue to be opportunities for observers to examine and reflect on fundamental concepts about the moon, such as its origin and interior structure, more modern tools are aiding these observations.

When it comes to understanding what a moon or a planet is made of remotely — short of touching it or placing seismometers on its surface or probes below the surface — classical physics comes to the rescue. By measuring the magnetic and gravitational forces that are generated on the inside and manifested on the outside of a planet or moon, we can learn volumes about the structure of its interior.

A spacecraft in the proximity of the moon can detect these forces. In the case of gravity, the mass of the moon will pull on the spacecraft due to gravitational attraction. If the spacecraft is transmitting a stable radio signal at the time, its frequency will shift by an amount exactly proportional to the forces pulling on the spacecraft.

This is how we weigh the moon and go further by measuring the detailed distribution of the densities of mountains and valleys as well as features below the moon’s surface. This collection of information is called the gravity field.

In the past, this has lead to the discovery mascons on the moon, or hidden, sub-surface concentrations of mass not obvious in images or topography. If not accounted for, mascons can complicate the navigation of future landed missions. A mission, human or robotic, attempting to land on the moon would need to have a detailed knowledge of the gravity field in order to navigate the landing process safely. If a spacecraft sensed gravitational pull higher than planned, it could jeopardize the mission.

GRAIL spacecraft

The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, scheduled to launch in September, is comprised of twin spacecraft flying in formation with radio links between them to measure the moon’s gravity field globally. This is because a single spacecraft with a link to Earth would be obstructed when the spacecraft goes behind the moon, leaving us with no measurement for nearly half of the moon, since the moon’s far side never faces the Earth. The GRAIL technique may also reveal if the Moon has a core with a fluid layer.

So as you go out to watch the lunar eclipse on the night of Dec. 20, think about how much we’ve learned about the moon so far and what more we can learn through missions like GRAIL. Even at a close distance from Earth, the moon remains a mystery waiting be uncovered.

Unchained Goddess: Frank Capra Knew

Monday, December 6th, 2010

By Amber Jenkins

a screen grab from The Unchained Goddess

You might think from the amount of “climate science debate” that is given airtime in the U.S. media that it’s undiscovered territory. But it’s not. The science is very well established and goes back a long way. Global warming is not a new concept.

The Victorians knew about it. John Tyndall (born 1820) knew about it. So did Svante August Arrhenius. In April 1896, Arrhenius published a paper in the London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science entitled “On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground.” (Arrhenius referred to carbon dioxide as “carbonic acid” in accordance with the convention of the time.)

Arrhenius’ paper was the first to quantify how carbon dioxide contributed to the greenhouse effect — carbon dioxide warms up the Earth by trapping heat near the surface, a bit like swaddling the planet in an extra blanket. Arrhenius was also the first to speculate about whether changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have contributed to long-term variations in Earth’s climate. He later made the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming.

Another person who “knew” some time ago was Frank Capra. Graduating from Caltech in 1918, he went on to become a famous filmmaker responsible for “It’s a Wonderful Life” and other movies. But one that stands out, at least for nerds like me or people with an interest in climate change is “Meteora: The Unchained Goddess”, released in 1958:

Made for Bell Labs, this most awesome educational film speaks of “extremely dangerous questions”:

Dr. Frank C. Baxter: “Because with our present knowledge we have no idea what would happen. Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of his civilization. Due to our release through factories and automobiles every year of more than six billion tons of carbon dioxide, which helps air absorb heat from the sun, our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer.”

Richard Carlson: “This is bad?”

Dr. Frank C. Baxter: “Well, it’s been calculated a few degrees rise in the Earth’s temperature would melt the polar ice caps. And if this happens, an inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi valley. Tourists in glass bottom boats would be viewing the drowned towers of Miami through 150 feet of tropical water. For in weather, we’re not only dealing with forces of a far greater variety than even the atomic physicist encounters, but with life itself.”

In 1958, they knew about the effects of heating up the planet. In the 1800s they knew about it. Today, the biggest challenge facing climate scientists lies in predicting how much our climate will change in the future. It’s not a trivial task, given how complicated the climate system is — we can barely predict in detail more than a week’s worth of weather. We’re not viewing Miami through bottomed-glass boats yet, but we’re already beginning to see some of the predictions of global warming — melting sea and land ice, sea level rise, more extreme weather events, changes in rainfall and effects on plants and animals — be borne out.

Thanks to OSS and Discovery News for the tip.

This post was written for “My Big Fat Planet,” a blog hosted by Amber Jenkins on NASA’s Global Climate Change site.