A series of new animations from a NASA scientist shows how the speed of light can be zippy – and also how tortuously slow.
The speed of light is the fastest that any material object can travel through space. This is obviously blocking the existence of theoretical shortcuts in the fabric of space called wormholes (and the ability to pass through them without being destroyed).
In a perfectly empty vacuum, a particle of light, which is called a photon, can travel 186,282 kilometers per second (299,792 kilometers per second), or about 1070 billion kilometers per hour.
This is incredibly fast. However, the speed of light can be frustratingly slow if you are trying to communicate or reach other planets, especially any worlds beyond our solar system.
To describe the speed limit of the cosmos in a way that anyone could understand, James O & # 39; Donoghue, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, took the initiative to cheer him on.
"My animations have been made to show as instantly as possible the whole context of what I'm trying to convey," Ooghho said to Business Insider via Twitter. "When I reviewed for my exams, I used to draw complex concepts by hand just to really understand, so that's what I'm doing here."
Donoghue said he only recently learned how to create these animations – the first of them was for a NASA press release on Saturn's flight rings. After that, he went on to animate other hard-to-understand space concepts, including a video that illustrates the rotation speeds and sizes of the planets. He said one "earned millions of views" when he posted on Twitter.
O & # 39; Donoghue's latest effort looks at three different speed-of-light scenarios to convey the speed at which photons can be fast (and painfully slow).
How fast light travels in relation to the Earth
One of the first animations of O & # 39; Donoghue shows how light moves rapidly relative to Earth.
The Earth has 24,901 miles around in its center. If our world had no atmosphere (air refracts and dims slightly), a photon sliding along its surface could cover the equator almost 7.5 times per second.
In this representation, the speed of light seems quite fast – although the film also shows how finite it is.
How fast light travels between the Earth and the Moon
A second animation of O & # 39; Donoghue takes a big step back from Earth to include the moon.
On average, there are about 384,400 kilometers of distance between our planet and its large natural satellite.
That means all the moonlight we see is 1,255 seconds, and a round trip between Earth and Moon at the speed of light takes about 2.51 seconds.
This time is growing every day, however, as the moon is moving away from Earth at a rate of about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) a year. (The moon is constantly undermining the Earth's rotational energy through the ocean tides, increasing its orbit at an increasing distance.)
How fast light travels between Earth and Mars
Donoghue's third light-speed animation illustrates the challenge with which many planetary scientists deal daily.
When NASA tries to talk or download data from a spacecraft, such as the InSight probe on Mars, it can only do so at the speed of light. This is too slow to operate a spacecraft in "live mode" as if it were a remote control car. Thus, commands must be carefully thought out, prepackaged and directed to the precise location in space at the right time so that they do not miss the target.
The fastest that a conversation could take place between Earth and Mars is when the planets are at the closest point to each other, an event called the closest approach that happens once every two years. On average, the best distance from the scene is about 54.3 million kilometers.
Like that 60-second clip from the full O & # 39; Donoghue movie on YouTube shows, the light takes 3 minutes and 2 seconds to travel between Earth and Mars at the closest approach. It's six minutes and four seconds for a high-speed round trip.
But, on average, Mars is about 158 million miles from Earth – so the average round-trip communication takes about 28 minutes and 12 seconds.
The speed of light becomes more depressing the further you go
The obstacle to the finite speed of light becomes even more challenging for spacecraft like New Horizons, which is more than 4 billion miles from Earth, and Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, each reaching the space between stars.
The situation gets absolutely depressing when you start looking out of the solar system. The best known exoplanet, called Proxima b, is about 4.2 light-years from us (a distance of about 24.7 trillion kilometers or 39.7 trillion kilometers).
However, the fastest spacecraft ever passed is NASA's Parker Solar Probe, at about 213,200 mph; at this speed, it would take 13,211 years to reach Proxima b.
The Russian-American billionaire's Breakthrough Starshot project provides a way to solve this speed problem. The multidecade plan is to build and fly tiny "nanocraft" past such exoplanets via ultrapower laser blasts, ideally at a planned cruising speed of 20% of the speed of light. However, the whole concept is still theoretical, it may end up not working and would operate at a fraction of the speed of light.
The space is incredibly vast. Although the universe is about 13.77 billion years, its margin is about 45.34 billion light-years away in any direction and is increasing due to expansion.
This is too large to illustrate in a simple animation. An illustration comes by: this image created by musician Pablo Carlos Budassi, which combines logarithmic maps of the Princeton universe and NASA images to capture everything in a single photo.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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