Eclipse week 5 – 1919

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It was nearly 10 years ago that I had the chance to witness my first – and only – total solar eclipse. It was every bit what is cracked up to be, and the feeling that you’re witnessing something special comes effortlessly. You don’t have to be an Astronomer to enjoy the uniqueness and transiency of such a brief moment, and millions of people in Asia had the same pleasure this week that I most certainly hope to have again in the near future.

But you probably do have to be an Astronomer to turn an eclipse into an event which will change the face of Physics. So today we’re not here to talk about the 1999 or the 2009 eclipses, but rather the total eclipse of the 29th of May, 1919. This puts us four years after Albert Einstein published his theory of General Relativity, in 1915.

General Relativity, at its most basic, is a theory of gravitation. It provides a theoretical framework which we can use to explain the behaviour of gravitationally interacting systems that we observe – like the solar system, or the Earth-Moon system, the Milky Way, etc. Most importantly, like any other scientific theory, it also allows us to make predictions about how gravity should affect these, and other, systems.

Prior to Einstein and General Relativity, our understanding of gravity was motivated by Newton’s theory of gravitation, often also referred to as the classical theory. In what we may call “everyday situations”, both theories make the same predictions, but General Relativity makes significantly different predictions, or presents very different explanations, for things like the geometry of space, the passage of time and how light propagates. Crucially, General Relativity predicts that the mass of an object affects space(time – the merging of space and time into a single mathematical object is also a consequence of General Relativity), and that the shape of spacetime affects the way light travels. These are stunningly anti-intuitive ideas, because they are only noticeable in regimes far detached from our everyday experiences. For example, we need a very large amount of mass to notice a very small deflection in light’s path.

But Einstein was not the first to suggest that mass affects the path of light. In 1801, Johann Georg von Soldner used Newton’s corpuscular theory of light – which states that beams of light are streams of particles of tiny mass – to calculate how mass would affect the path of a beam of light. He arrived to a result which is known as the Newtonian result for the bending of light. However, because we know now that light is in fact made of massless photons, there is no formal way to correctly treat the bending of light in Newtonian gravity. This was not known at the time, so the result stuck. Unaware of Soldner’s calculations, Einstein in 1911 calculated what the bending of light should be in his new theory of General Relativity, which at the time was work in progress. He reached the same value that Soldner had done, over 100 years previously. Crucially, once his theory was finalised in 1919, Einstein revisited this problem and realised he had made an error – the bending of light, once one takes into account the curving of space, should be twice that of the Newtonian result. Such a clear distinction between the predictions of two competing theories is a blessing – it gives scientists the chance to design an experiment which can show which one, if either, is correct.

We couldn’t look in the Earth for a suitable system to measure this effect in, but in 1919 Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Dyson and Plumian Professor of Astronomy in Cambridge Arthur Eddington decided to look elsewhere – they turned the Sun, the Moon, and a distant cluster of stars called the Hyades into their own laboratory. The idea is that the mass of the Sun is large enough to bend the light which passes nearby, as that of distant stars which are sitting behind or very near the Sun from the Earth’s perspective. This is of course happening all the time, but we simply can’t see the light of distance stars near the Sun because the Sun is so much brighter than the stars we are trying to observe. Unless something really big gets in the way and blocks the light from the Sun – say the Moon (which is actually much smaller than the Sun, but sits just at the right distance – see Emma’s post). A total eclipse makes therefore the perfect opportunity to see how the position of stars in the sky changes when their light has to travel close to the Sun on their way to us.

1919_eclipse_negative The eclipse of 1919 was a good and timely opportunity to measure this effect, and expeditions in the island of Principe (off the west coast of Africa) and Sobral in Brazil were planned to do precisely so. The Moon would block the light from the Sun for almost 7 minutes – an exceptionally long period of totality! What no Astronomer can ever do, however, is plan to the weather. And so, for over 6 minutes, Eddington waited and stared at a cloud.. and prayed. The cloud did disappear, giving Eddington and his team 10 seconds – 10 precious seconds! – to take the needed photo. You can see the negative of this photo on the left, and if you look carefully you can see the horizontal lines which mark the positions of the stars. The expedition in Brazil got perfect weather, but later a flaw in the telescope setup meant that the results could not be used. So Eddington and Dyson went home to analyse the data, while the community – and Einstein – waited.

Within the margin of error, the shifts observed in the positions of the stars were more in agreement with Einstein’s predictions that Newton’s, and Einstein was thrown into stardom once the results were announced. It is worth mentioning that there was healthy controversy at the time, and the data analysis of Eddington was challenged – as it should have been – by the scientific community. Such a leap in scientific thinking never gets an easy ride! But results in following expeditions confirmed the 1919 results, as did other experiments which measured slight departures from Newtonian predictions in different systems (the orbit of Mercury being one example). General Relativity has been proven time and time again to be accurate within our measurement errors, and it’s a deep and beautiful theory. Given another chance I will tell you why and how some scientists feel the need to adapt General Relativity to explain some recent observations of the distant Universe, and how controversial and interesting a topic that is. But not now..

Personally, I find it rather interesting that this event really catapulted Einstein into the public eye. Einstein_theory_triumphsYou can see on the right one of the headlines at the time, and in fact the story was picked up by newspapers and magazines all over the world. It is particularly interesting given how complex General Relativity is, which doesn’t make it a readily accessible theory to the public. This didn’t stop the world from taking an interest, and hopefully encouraged many people to try and understand it, even if only a small part.

I also finding it amusing that two other expeditions, planned for 1912 and 1914, failed due to bad weather and the war. But had they happened before Einstein corrected his predictions (in 1915), his theory would have been proven wrong – before he had a chance to correct it!

I’ve stayed too long, but for those who want to know more let me recommend Peter Coles’ excellent exposition of this subject here.

I believe this concludes our first mini-series of posts! I hope you enjoyed it, and learnt a thing or two. If you have any ideas for more mini-series just leave us a comment – we’ll be happy to consider it.

Eclipse Week 4: Beware of Assyrians bearing crowns

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Solar eclipses were often thought of during early history as being portents of the supernatural. In ancient China for instance it was thought that the Sun was being eaten by a dragon. These events were almost always associated with bad luck.

Perhaps the most striking example of superstition in ancient societies comes from Assyrian Empire. There lunar or solar eclipses were regarded as portents for the death of the king. Hence for the period around a solar eclipse a temporary king or “sar puhi” was appointed. This was usually a man condemned to death who was given the title of king while the actual king was disguised as a peasant. After the period around the eclipse was over (usually 100 days) the true king was reinstated to the throne. Some sources suggest the temporary king was then bumped off.

However as science developed, superstitions became much less common. En route to a battle against the Spartans, the Athenian general Pericles noticed that his troops were terrified by a solar eclipse. Removing his cloak he demonstrated that an eclipse was just a shadow cast on the Earth remarking “What is the difference, then, between this and the eclipse, except that the eclipse has been caused by something bigger than my cloak?”

As Arab, Chinese and European astronomers became more and more advanced the idea that the eclipse was the moon casting a shadow on the Earth (probably first proposed by Chinese astronomers) became more accepted and refined and eclipses became easier to predict.

By the 19th century eclipses were being used to make new scientific discoveries. During a solar eclipse in India in 1868 Frenchman Pierre Janssen observed a previously unknown spectral line. It looked similar to lines from sodium so was put down to that element. however later that year the line was also observed by English astronomer Norman Lockyer. He correctly identified it as a new element which he named Helium after the Greek word for the Sun.

And then of course there was the eclipse of 1919……

Just to add: as has been pointed out to me, the Assyrian temporary king ritual could be performed for many omens, a solar eclipse being just one of them.

Eclipse week 3: A different perspective

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As stunning as an eclipse is to see from the Earth it’s not the only vantage point we have on the event. Having sent probes in to space now for a number of years we can look back on the Earth to witness this event from the outside in. During the last major eclipse astronauts on board the ISS turned their cameras back to the earth and recorded these frankly terrifying images:

You can clearly see the ominous shadow that the Moon is casting on the Earth. In the center of that dark spot many onlookers are experiencing a total eclipse while around the periphery where the shadow is not so deep will be a partial eclipse. This shadow slowly makes its way across the face of the Earth. It’s a stunning and largely foreign perspective on an already amazing event.

As Emma discussed last post we are pretty much just lucky that the Sun and Moon appear to be the same size in the sky but one place in the Solar system in which this is obviously not the case is our own Moon. On the Moon the Earth appears in the sky much as the Moon does in ours and can on occasion eclipse the sun as well. Solar eclipses on the Moon though are a little different form here on Earth, for a start the Earth moves across the sky much slower on the Moon: a lunar day is about as long as our month meaning the Earth moves across the sky roughly 29 times slower than the Moon moves in our skies. The Earth also appears much larger in the sky both of which mean that Eclipses on the Moon last much longer than ours.

We don’t just have to imagine what an eclipse on the moon would like: there have been two Solar eclipses observed from the Moon over the years, one by human eyes and one by robotic. The first was witnessed by the Apollo 12 crew on their way home from the moon and snapped this image:

Apollo 12 sees a lunar eclipse

Apollo 12 sees a lunar eclipse

The small slither of light still visible is filtering through the Earth’s atmosphere, where if you just squint you might be able to make out some details of clouds. This is something we are generally unaccustomed to seeing in an eclipse as the Moon has no atmosphere.

The second eclipse  in which the shadow is cast by us was recorded in wonderful HD by the Japanese Kaguya probe which is currently orbiting the Moon. To check out the full HD video of the eclipse you can here.

It’s hopeful to think that with our return to the Moon that such sights might become much more common.

Join us tomorrow when Niall will be talking about what eclipses have meant to people down through the years.

Eclipse live webcasts

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Quick post for everyone who’s not lucky enough to be in the path of tomorrow’s solar eclipse. I’ve come across two websites which will be doing live webcasts of the event: this one from China and this one from Japan. If anyone knows of any other good (or better) sites along the same lines leave a link to them in the comments box below.

Eclipse Week 2: The importance of luck

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Have you ever considered why the Moon and the Sun appear to be about the same size in the sky? I think it’s one of those things you just accept and never get round to examining how remarkably lucky that is, and what it would mean for eclipses if it wasn’t the case.

It turns out that the Sun is around 400 times bigger than the Moon but also just happens to be around 400 times further away from the Earth – it is this coincidence which causes the two objects to seem to have similar disk sizes. This means that during an eclipse the Moon is able to completely obscure the Sun, giving us a spectacular show in the process.

We do have some experience of what eclipses would be like if the Moon were further away. In an annular eclipse (see Stuart’s post yesterday for an explanation) the small ring of Sun still visible is enough to drown out the beautiful, faint, solar corona. A more extreme example comes from NASA’s STEREO-B solar satellite which is about 4 times further from the Moon than we are. It therefore sees eclipses like this:


As far as we know there’s no physical reason for the Sun/Moon size coincidence. In fact, since the Moon is actually moving away from us by several centimetres per year, in several million years our eclipses will be a lot more boring! Equally the dinosaurs (if any of them wanted to look) would have seen a Moon which appeared larger than the Sun. Basically we’re just lucky to be around at the optimum photograph time.

Interestingly, the reason we know the Moon is moving away is because of the Apollo missions which are being talked about so much at the moment because of the 40th anniversary of the lunar landings. One of the things the astronauts left behind them were reflector arrays (the one left by Apollo 11 is pictured to the right).

Optical telescopes have been sending pulses of laser light at these arrays ever since – timing how long it takes the light to return gives the distance to the Moon at that moment. The initially narrow laser beam is several kilometres wide by the time it reaches its destination but, given that the Moon is over 3000 kilometres in diameter, hitting the correct area is a challenging task!

Well I think that’s all I’ve got to say about eclipses, but don’t worry as there’s lots more to come from everyone else! Tune in tomorrow when Stuart’s back again to talk about what an eclipse would look like from the Moon’s perspective.

Eclipse Week Post 1: Just what is an Eclipse?

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Harbingers of death and destruction? A neat way to test how gravity works? A good opportunity to wear silly glasses and crowd around strange looking devices? Yes eclipses are all of these things and more… apart from the harbinger of death thing I just stuck that in there to scare you.

This week India will be treated to a spectacle which will see people flocking from around the world to witness. Taregna a small town in the Indian state of Bihar will be the epicenter for this event seeing the Sun completely covered by the moon. In honor of this event we here at weareallinthegutter have decided to have an eclipse week celebrating all astronomical based shadows.

To start with I want to talk about what eclipses are, how they occur and how we predict when the next one will be. At this point I feel like I have to make a confession: to a professional astronomer there is nothing more terrifying than being asked a question about what actually goes on in the sky. Ask most of us to point a constellation or why planets move the way they do and you will get an answer which will be right eventually, but to get there you will experience a lot of hand waving and muddled sentences. It turns out when you study objects many many times larger than our galaxy which contains all the stuff you normally see in the sky it’s not really that useful to know in depth details of the motion of our little rock and its closest buddies.

With that disclaimer out of the way lets get in to the heart of the matter: an eclipse is the mother of all shadows. When the sun and the moon happen to be located in the same place in the sky the light from the sun is blocked ether in part (a partial eclipse) or fully (a total eclipse) by the moon. To get an eclipse we need to have an alignment of the sun and moon and so their paths have to cross in the sky. The path of the sun across the sky is called the ecliptic: a line which passes through all the signs of the zodiac (and in no way determines how lucky you will be in love or business thank you very much!). So why don’t we get an eclipse every month? Every time there is a new moon the Sun and Moon are very close to each other, so why is it that the vast majority of new Moons dont have an accompanying eclipse? Well it turns out that the moon does not travel along the ecliptic like the Sun does but rather a line which is slightly inclined to the ecliptic by about 5 degrees or so. If they lay along the same line then eclipses would be much more regular but as it stands we get at max about 2 a year. This small inclination means that the Moon is normally a little way above or bellow the Sun. The only time we get an eclipse then is when a new moon happens to occur at the point where the path of the Sun and the Moon also cross. Following me cause I am not sure if I am at this point.

Ok so now things get complicated as the orientation of the tilt in the moons orbit also changes over time. The Sun’s gravity pulls on the moon a little bit in its orbit and the orbit changing its orientation. Its sort of like what a penny does at the end of a good spin. As it slows down it does that little funny dance where the way the face of the penny is pointing moves around. The technical word it precession but that’s not too important, what is important is that it changes the two points at which the moon’s path crosses the ecliptic and so affects when we can have an eclipse.

The third and final effect is that the moon’s orbit is not completely circular but rather elliptical which means that at some points in its orbit the moon is further from the earth than at others and so will appear smaller in the sky. Obviously this has an affect on the type of eclipse we could see. If the moon is just about the right distance from us it fully covers the sun giving a total eclipse but if it is that little further away from us then it leaves a small ring of light around the outside of the Sun which we call an annular eclipse. Simple right? Only the point on its orbit when the moon is the furthest from us also changes with time which we also have to factor into our model.

So for a total eclipse like the one this week we need to have three different cycles all matching up at the same time, we need it to be a new moon, we need that new moon to occur when the paths of the Sun and the Moon are crossing and we need the Moon to be at the right point on its orbit so that its not too far away from us. You begin to understand why events such as this are so rare and attract such large crowds

Given the fact that there are three cycles involved which after different periods of time which eventually repeat, it is interesting to ask if the pattern of eclipses also repeats. Well we have three cycles to consider: the times between new Moons which is roughly every 29.53 days, the time between the moon passing the same point on the ecliptic which happens every 27.21 days and finally the time between the the moon being at the same distance from the earth must be the same which happens every 27.55 days. To get an identical eclipse we have to have a length of time in which a whole number of each of these periods will fit. It turns out that happens only after 18.031 years which is known as a Saros cycle. This basically means that 18.031 years after this weeks eclipse another eclipse will happen which looks pretty much identical in the sky. The only difference will be that it will be visible from a different part of the Earth. In fact it has been estimated that it takes 370 years for an eclipse to occur at the same place on Earth.

As you can imagine this makes the event in Taregna all the more special for its residents as it is truly a once in many lifetimes event which they are witnessing. I for one wish I was there to see it.

Phew ok I think I got through most of that. If any of it is still unclear (which I am sure it is) the best procedure to find out more is to find your local amateur astronomy society, find out which pub they frequent, go there on a Friday night buy a round and casually bring up the topic of eclipses. In no time at all beer glasses, salt shakers and beer mats will be transformed in to a mini solar system to help you visualise what is going on. By the end of the night you will ether be an expert on eclipses or be so drunk that you don’t really care any more so its win win really.

Join us tomorrow when Emma will be talking more about why eclipses look the way they do and why Earth is lucky to have total eclipses at all.

Eclipse week

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Hey, as you probably know this Wednesday there is a total solar eclipse across much of Asia and the pacific. Hence over the next week we’ll have an article every day on different aspects of solar eclipses.

Apollo site snaps

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Nasa have just released a series of timely photos taken from their Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. This orbiter which is gearing up to map the surface of the moon to identify landing sites for future manned missions took some time to snap some images of the landing sites from the last visit we made to our pale dance partner in space.

The orbiter is still not in its final mapping orbit so we can expect future images of these areas to get 2 to 3 times the resolution but even at this early stage its still really exciting to see the marks we left on the moon still there. While Apollo 11 site wins the historically most important site my personal favorite is the snap of the Apollo 14 landing site:

You can actually see the path that Al Shepard and Edgar Mitchell made as they shuffled from the Lunar Module to some of the scientific instruments. Apollo 14 is also my favorite mission for two reasons:  as Al Shepard played some golf on the moon and the astronauts took with them a number of seed which where then germinated back on Earth to make Moon Trees (I am a big old sentimental softy at heart) .

While its exciting to have these photos it does highlight a little how much of a shame it is that this is the first time we have seen the site of what is arguably one of humanities greatest accomplishments in over 38 years.

In search of moons of Venus

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Venus still has no moons, not the most interesting start to an article, but I thought I may as well start this post by giving the ending away. Why? Partly because I get a strange kick out of spoiling your enjoyment of my own blog post (by the way, Murder on the Orient Express, turns out Poirot did it) and partly because I don’t want to leave you under the misapprehension that this article is about the greatest discovery in modern Solar System astronomy, it’s not. What it is about is this interesting paper which set out to find moons around Venus and (you may know this already) found none.

And so to Venus, second planet in of the Solar System, about the same size as the Earth, bit on the hot side on its surface, probably what you saw that time you thought you spotted a UFO. The idea of Venus having a moon first surfaced shortly after the discovery of satellites around other planets such as Jupiter (Galileo, 1610), Saturn (Huygens, 1655) and Earth (Homo erectus, 1,500,000BC). So it didn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to believe the object discovered by Cassini in 1672 was a moon of our Venerean neighbour. Named Neith, this supposed moon was described by Cassini as being up to a quarter of the diameter of Venus. However despite many various claims of subsequent observations of the satellite later searches failed to confirm its existence and it is likely that the sightings were bright stars which happened to be close to Venus at the time of the observations that astronomers confused with a moon.

So alas Neith as we knew it does not exist and after that short historical detour it’s time to return to our feature presentation, A survey for satellites of Venus. The idea for the study was simple, look for the first time with modern astronomical equipment (CCD cameras) for satellites of Venus. But where to look? Where could a moon of Venus exist? Well there is a good rough maximum limit beyond which a satellite couldn’t orbit its parent body. This is known as the Hill radius and is the limit within which a planet’s gravity dominates over that of the Sun. Around Venus this is approximately a million kilometres. Calculating the maximum distance a moon can be from its parent planet is actually a bit more complicated than just working out the Hill radius (it can depend on which way the satellite orbits for instance) and it is actually a little smaller than it, but the Hill radius serves as a good approximation to how close to a planet you have to look to have a chance of seeing a moon.

So the team of astronomers based in the US used one of the Magellan telescopes in Chile to look for a new Neith. The area around Venus was divided into 5 fields and each of these were observed three time with 2-4 minutes between observations. Incredibly, Venus’ motion across the sky compared to background stars is so great that a four minute time baseline is enough to distinguish objects which are satellites of Venus (and hence move across the sky with it) from coincidence objects in the same field. Unfortunately the study found only 5 known, unrelated background asteroids.

The authors calculate that they cover 90% of the Hill sphere (a sphere with a radius of the Hill radius) and taking into account the fact that the maximum stable orbit separation is slightly smaller than the Hill radius they reckon they cover 99% of the volume in which a satellite might exist (even taking into account the areas where scattered light from Venus would drown out the signal from any moon). Of course there still could be moons smaller than the smallest moon they could detect (which the authors calculate to be 300m in radius).

So in summary, Venus still has no known moons.

Sheppard, S., & Trujillo, C. (2009). A survey for satellites of Venus Icarus, 202 (1), 12-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2009.02.008

Recreating Apollo 11

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Forty years ago today Apollo 11 set off on a mission to land on the moon for the first time. To celebrate the anniversary of this historic occasion this website is going to recreate the entire mission in real time! As I write this there’s about 4 hours to go until launch and the crew are reported to be resting…


(Launch photo courtesy of NASA)