Why Can't We See Stars During the Day?


What causes our inability to see stars during the day? I always thought sunlight would bounce off the particles in the air, thus illuminating them. And the stars would no longer stand out. However people argue that the reason there are no stars in moon landing pictures is because the pictures are taken in lunar days. But the moon has no atmosphere. So I'm wrong.

Rebecca Pitts:

Your thinking is not wrong, merely incomplete. Rather, you’re applying the same principles to two different situations: Sunlight can scatter off of any substance between a light source and a detector—including all parts of your eyeball in front of your retinas—but in the absence of that, it’d still be hard to see the stars. The Sun, and bodies that reflect its light, are just too darn bright compared to their surroundings.

To quantify just how much brighter the Sun and the daytime sky are than the stars, let me start by introducing the wonky way astronomers gauge how bright things are relative to each other or to a standard star. It’s called the Magnitude system, and barely makes sense today because it’s a 2000-year-old hand-me-down from Hipparchus/Ptolemy (it’s so old we can’t even agree on who’s responsible). The relevant details are summed up in the following images:

(By the way, that infographic is overly optimistic in one regard: the naked-eye limit in most cities is more like 3rd magnitude.)

To put the Sun and Moon on that scale and show you just how far the magnitude system can go into the negatives, look at this:

How the Size of a Star Relates to Brightness

The daytime sky is bright enough that it outshines anything fainter than magnitude -4. So, yes, on Earth, the atmosphere is in fact the problem, because of Rayleigh Scattering.

Now what about situations where the atmosphere isn’t a factor?

Combining information from the two figures, the full moon is at least 25,000 times brighter than Sirius. The sun is 400,000 times brighter than that—10,000,000,000 times brighter than the brightest star in the night sky. The brightness of a candle, not coincidentally, is about 1 candela (SI unit of brightness). What’s something 10,000,000,000 times brighter than a candle? Try something like the Luxor Sky Beam in Las Vegas, which shines at 42.3 billion candela. Seeing a star with the sun in your field of view will never be less hard than spotting a handful of candles while staring down the beam of the most powerful spotlight on Earth.

The ratio of signal intensity (brightness in the case of light) between the faintest detectable signal and the point where your instrument maxes out (saturation) is called dynamic range, essentially the maximum contrast ratio. So to photograph the sun and have another star show up in the same image, your detector needs a dynamic range of 10 billion. The dynamic ranges of existing technologies are as follows:

  • Charge Coupled Devices (CCDs, the detectors for digital cameras): 70,000–500,000 depending on the grade (16-bit Analogue-to-Digital converter software that typically accompanies consumer- and education-grade CCDs will cut this to about 50,000)
  • Charge-Injection Devices (the fancier cousin of the CCD where pixels are handled individually rather than by rows and columns): 20 million, as this PDF demonstrates.
  • Human Eye: widely variable, but tops out around 15,000
  • Photographic Film: a few hundred. Yep—that’s it.

To add insult to injury, film doesn’t even react to 98 to 99 percent of the light that hits it. Your eye is every bit as inefficient, but at least it has a dynamic range closer to that of a CCD than to film. CCDs will register upwards of 90 percent of the incident light. You can read about other advantages of CCDs here (their stat on the dynamic range of film is a tad low). But back in the 1960s, CCDs didn’t exist. NASA had to make do with film. (Here’s a whole article on NASA’s film supplies and their specs during the Apollo Program.)

At the Earth’s (and moon’s) distance from the sun, the average square meter of surface receives about 342 watts per square meter (W/m^2) of power from the sun (see Solar Radiation at Earth). If the sun is directly overhead, that number is closer to 1368 W/m^2, but let’s stick with 342 W/m^2 because that’s the average over the sun-facing hemisphere and most of the surface is at some angle to the sun. The Moon reflects about 12 percent of the light that hits it. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but for the Apollo astronauts, that’s like standing on a surface where every square meter is, on average, as bright as a typical desk lamp. The astronauts’ white suits and the highly reflective landing modules were even brighter. As far as the film was concerned, the Apollo astronauts were flood lights standing in a lamp shop. That kind of light pollution doesn’t make for good astrophotography.

Regardless of the technology used, the correct exposure time is important to get a good picture of what you want and as little as possible of what you don’t want. The background stars were not important to the Apollo crews’ studies of the Moon, so their exposure times were calculated to get the best images of Moon rocks, astronauts, landing sites, etc. The upshot is that exposure times for most Apollo photographs were so short that the photo emulsion never received enough light from the background stars to react.

However, there are images taken by the Apollo crews with stars in them. But stars were never their targets, so they don’t look very good, as these UV images from Apollo 16 show:

NASA (*Note - false color UV photo of Earth’s Geocorona in 3 filters, rather poorly aligned judging by the stars)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Are Mugshots Made Public Before a Suspect is Convicted by the Court?

Jennifer Ellis:

Several reasons.

1. Mugshots can help find people when they have absconded, or warn people when someone is out and dangerous. So there is a good reason to share some mugshots.

2. Our legal system requires openness as per the federal constitution, and I imagine most if not all state constitutions. As such, this sort of information is not considered private and can be shared. Any effort to keep mugshots private would result in lawsuits by the press and lay people. This would be under the First and Sixth Amendments as well as the various Freedom of Information Acts. However, in 2016 a federal court ruled [PDF] that federal mugshots are no longer routinely available under the federal FOIA.

This is partially in recognition of the damage that mugshots can do online. In its opinion, the court noted that “[a] disclosed booking photo casts a long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual.” The court specifically mentions websites that put mugshots online, in its analysis. “In fact, mugshot websites collect and display booking photos from decades-old arrests: BustedMugshots and JustMugshots, to name a couple.” Some states have passed or are looking to pass laws to prevent release of mugshots prior to conviction. New Jersey is one example.

a) As the federal court recognizes, and as we all know, the reality is that if your picture in a mugshot is out there, regardless of whether you were convicted, it can have an unfortunate impact on your life. In the old days, this wasn’t too much of a problem because it really wasn’t easy to find mugshots. Now, with companies allegedly seeking to extort people into paying to get their images off the web, it has become a serious problem. Those companies may get in trouble if it can be proved that they are working in concert, getting paid to take the picture off one site and then putting it on another. But that is rare. In most cases, the picture is just public data to which there is no right of privacy under the law.

b) The underlying purpose of publicity is to avoid the government charging people and abusing the authority to do so. It was believed that the publicity would help protect people. And it does when you have a country that likes to hide what it is up to. But, it also can cause harm in a modern society like ours, where such things end up on the web and can cause permanent damage. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a catch-22. We have the right to know issues and free speech rights smack up against privacy rights and serious damage of reputation for people who have not been convicted of a crime. The law will no doubt continue to shake out over the next few years as it struggles to catch up with the technology.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Happens When You Flush an Airplane Toilet?

For millions of people, summer means an opportunity to hop on a plane and experience new and exciting sights, cultures, and food. It also means getting packed into a giant commercial aircraft and then wondering if you can make it to your next layover without submitting to the anxiety of using the onboard bathroom.

Roughly the size of an apartment pantry, these narrow facilities barely accommodate your outstretched knees; turbulence can make expelling waste a harrowing nightmare. Once you’ve successfully managed to complete the task and flush, what happens next?

Unlike our home toilets, planes can’t rely on water tanks to create passive suction to draw waste from the bowl. In addition to the expense of hauling hundreds of gallons of water, it’s impractical to leave standing water in an environment that shakes its contents like a snow globe. Originally, planes used an electronic pump system that moved waste along with a deodorizing liquid called Anotec. That method worked, but carrying the Anotec was undesirable for the same reasons as storing water: It raised fuel costs and added weight to the aircraft that could have been allocated for passengers. (Not surprisingly, airlines prefer to transport paying customers over blobs of poop.)

Beginning in the 1980s, planes used a pneumatic vacuum to suck liquids and solids down and away from the fixture. Once you hit the flush button, a valve at the bottom of the toilet opens, allowing the vacuum to siphon the contents out. (A nonstick coating similar to Teflon reduces the odds of any residue.) It travels to a storage tank near the back of the plane at high speeds, ready for ground crews to drain it once the airplane lands. The tank is then flushed out using a disinfectant.

If you’re also curious about timing your bathroom visit to avoid people waiting in line while you void, flight attendants say the best time to go is right after the captain turns off the seat belt sign and before drink service begins.

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