Atmospheric refraction


Atmospheric refraction

Atmospheric refraction is the deviation of light or other electromagnetic wave from a straight line as it passes through the atmosphere due to the variation in air density as a function of altitude. Atmospheric refraction near the ground produces mirages and can make distant objects appear to shimmer or ripple. The term also applies to the refraction of sound.

Atmospheric refraction causes astronomical objects to appear higher in the sky than they are in reality. It affects not only lightrays but all electromagnetic radiation, although in varying degrees (see dispersion (optics)). For example in visible light, blue is more affected than red. This may cause astronomical objects to be spread out into a spectrum in high-resolution images.

Whenever possible astronomers will always schedule their observations around the time of culmination of an object when it is highest in the sky. Likewise sailors will never shoot a star which is not at least 20° or more above the horizon. If observations close to the horizon cannot be avoided, it is possible to equip a telescope with control systems to compensate for the shift caused by the refraction. If the dispersion is a problem too, (in case of broadband high-resolution observations) atmospheric refraction correctors can be employed as well (made from pairs of rotating glass prisms). But as the amount of atmospheric refraction is function of temperature and pressure as well as humidity (the amount of water vapour especially important at mid-infrared wavelengths) the amount of effort needed for a successful compensation can be prohibitive.

It gets even worse when the atmospheric refraction is not homogenous, when there is turbulence in the air for example. This is the cause of twinkling of the stars and deformation of the shape of the sun at sunset and sunrise.

Values

The atmospheric refraction is zero in the zenith, is less than 1′ (one arcminute) at 45° altitude, still only 5′ at 10° altitude, but then quickly increases when the horizon is approached. On the horizon itself it is about 34′ (according to FW Bessel), just a little bit larger than the apparent size of the sun. Therefore if it appears that the setting sun is just above the horizon, in reality it has already set. Formulae to calculate the times of sunrise and sunset do not calculate the moment that the sun reaches altitude zero, but when its altitude is −50′: 16′ for the radius of the sun (solar positions are for the centre of the sun-disc, but sunrise and sunset usually refer to the appearance and disappearance of the upperlimb) plus 34′ for the refraction. In the case of the Moon one should apply additional corrections for the horizontal parallax of the moon, its apparent diameter and its phase, although the latter is seldom done.

The refraction is also a function of temperature and pressure. The values given above are for 10 °C and 100.3 kPa. Add 1 % to the refraction for every 3 °C colder, subtract if hotter (hot air is less dense, and will therefore have less refraction). Add 1 % for every 0.9 kPa higher pressure, subtract if lower. Evidently day to day variations in the weather will affect the exact times of sunrise and sunset as well as moonrise and moonset, and for that reason are never given more accurately than to the nearest whole minute in the almanacs.

As the atmospheric refraction is 34′ on the horizon itself, but only 29′ above it, the setting or rising sun seems to be flattened by about 5′ (about 1/6 of its apparent diameter).

Random refraction effects

Turbulence in the atmosphere magnifies and de-magnifies star images, making them appear brighter and fainter on a time-scale of milliseconds. The slowest components of these fluctuations are visible to the eye as twinkling (also called “scintillation”).

Turbulence also causes small random motions of the star image, and produces rapid changes in its structure. These effects are not visible to the naked eye, but are easily seen even in small telescopes. They are called “seeing” by astronomers.

ee also

*Astronomical seeing
*Ibn al-Haytham
*Refraction
*Shen Kuo

External links

* [http://mintaka.sdsu.edu/GF/explain/atmos_refr/astr_refr.html Astronomical Refraction]


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