NASA Space Place September 2015


Measure the moon's size and distance during the next lunar eclipse

By Ethan Siegel


The moon represents perhaps the first great paradox of the night sky in all of human history. While its angular size is easy to measure with the unaided eye from any location on Earth, ranging from 29.38 arc-minutes (0.4897°) to 33.53 arc-minutes (0.5588°) as it orbits our world in an ellipse, that doesn't tell us its physical size. From its angular size alone, the moon could just as easily be close and small as it could be distant and enormous.

But we know a few other things, even relying only on naked-eye observations. We know its phases are caused by its geometric configuration with the sun and Earth. We know that the sun must be farther away (and hence, larger) than the moon from the phenomenon of solar eclipses, where the moon passes in front of the sun, blocking its disk as seen from Earth. And we know it undergoes lunar eclipses, where the sun's light is blocked from the moon by Earth.

Lunar eclipses provided the first evidence that Earth was round; the shape of the portion of the shadow that falls on the moon during its partial phase is an arc of a circle. In fact, once we measured the radius of Earth (first accomplished in the 3rd century B.C.E.), now known to be 6,371 km, all it takes is one assumption—that the physical size of Earth's shadow as it falls on the moon is approximately the physical size of Earth—and we can use lunar eclipses to measure both the size of and the distance to the moon!

Simply by knowing Earth's physical size and measuring the ratios of the angular size of its shadow and the angular size of the moon, we can determine the moon's physical size relative to Earth. During a lunar eclipse, Earth's shadow is about 3.5 times larger than the moon, with some slight variations dependent on the moon's point in its orbit. Simply divide Earth's radius by your measurement to figure out the moon's radius!

Even with this primitive method, it's straightforward to get a measurement for the moon's radius that's accurate to within 15% of the actual value: 1,738 km. Now that you've determined its physical size and its angular size, geometry alone enables you to determine how far away it is from Earth. A lunar eclipse is coming up on September 28th, and this supermoon eclipse will last for hours. Use the partial phases to measure the size of and distance to the moon, and see how close you can get!







Image credit: Daniel Munizaga (NOAO South/CTIO EPO), using the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, of an eight-image sequence of the partial phase of a total lunar eclipse.


NASA Space Place May 2015


The "G" in GOES Is What Makes It Go

By Dr. Ethan Siegel


Going up into space is the best way to view the universe, eliminating all the distortionary effects of weather, clouds, temperature variations and the atmosphere's airflow all in one swoop. It's also the best way, so long as you're up at high enough altitudes, to view an entire 50 percent of Earth all at once. And if you place your observatory at just the right location, you can observe the same hemisphere of Earth continuously, tracking the changes and behavior of our atmosphere for many years.

The trick, believe it or not, was worked out by Kepler some 400 years ago! The same scientist who discovered that planets orbit the sun in ellipses also figured out the relationship between how distant an object needs to be from a much more massive one in order to have a certain orbital period. All you need to know is the period and distance of one satellite for any given body, and you can figure out the necessary distance to have any desired period. Luckily for us, planet Earth has a natural satellite—the moon—and just from that information, we can figure out how distant an artificial satellite would need to be to have an orbital period that exactly matches the length of a day and the rotational speed of Earth. For our world, that means an orbital distance of 42,164 km (26,199 miles) from Earth's center, or 35,786 km (22,236 miles) above mean sea level.

We call that orbit geosynchronous or geostationary, meaning that a satellite at that distance always remains above the exact same location on our world. Other effects—like solar wind, radiation pressure and the moon—require onboard thrusters to maintain the satellite's precisely desired position above any given point on Earth's surface. While geostationary satellites have been in use since 1963, it was only in 1974 that the Synchronous Meteorological Satellite (SMS) program began to monitor Earth's weather with them, growing into the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program the next year. For 40 years now, GOES satellites have monitored the Earth's weather continuously, with a total of 16 satellites having been launched as part of the program. To the delight of NASA (and Ghostbusters) fans everywhere, GOES-R series will launch in 2016, with thrice the spectral information, four times the spatial resolution and five times the coverage speed of its predecessors, with many other improved capabilities. Yet it's the simplicity of gravity and the geostationary "G" in GOES that gives us the power to observe our hemisphere all at once, continuously, and for as long as we like!




Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of the first image ever obtained from a GOES satellite. This image was taken from over 22,000 miles (35,000 km) above the Earth's surface on October 25, 1975.




NASA Space Place March 2015


The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, winter brings long, cold nights, which are often excellent for sky watchers (so long as there's a way to keep warm!) But there's often an added bonus that comes along when conditions are just right: the polar lights, or the Aurora Borealis around the North Pole. Here on our world, a brilliant green light often appears for observers at high northern latitudes, with occasional, dimmer reds and even blues lighting up a clear night.

We had always assumed that there was some connection between particles emitted from the Sun and the aurorae, as particularly intense displays were observed around three days after a solar storm occurred in the direction of Earth. Presumably, particles originating from the Sun—ionized electrons and atomic nuclei like protons and alpha particles—make up the vast majority of the solar wind and get funneled by the Earth's magnetic field into a circle around its magnetic poles. They're energetic enough to knock electrons off atoms and molecules at various layers in the upper atmosphere—particles like molecular nitrogen, oxygen and atomic hydrogen. And when the electrons fall back either onto the atoms or to lower energy levels, they emit light of varying but particular wavelengths—oxygen producing the most common green signature, with less common states of oxygen and hydrogen producing red and the occasional blue from nitrogen.

But it wasn't until the 2000s that this picture was directly confirmed! NASA's Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) satellite (which ceased operations in December 2005) was able to find out how the magnetosphere responded to solar wind changes, how the plasmas were energized, transported and (in some cases) lost, and many more properties of our magnetosphere. Planets without significant magnetic fields such as Venus and Mars have much smaller, weaker aurorae than we do, and gas giant planets like Saturn have aurorae that primarily shine in the ultraviolet rather than the visible. Nevertheless, the aurorae are a spectacular sight in the evening, particularly for observers in Alaska, Canada and the Scandinavian countries. But when a solar storm comes our way, keep your eyes towards the north at night; the views will be well worth braving the cold!



Auroral overlays from the IMAGE spacecraft.

Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory (Goddard Space Flight Center) / Blue Marble team.



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