UCSB Science Line
Sponge Spicules Nerve Cells Galaxy Abalone Shell Nickel Succinate X-ray Lens Lupine
UCSB Science Line
Home
How it Works
Ask a Question
Search Topics
Webcasts
Our Scientists
Science Links
Contact Information
How do we know that light can travel through a vacuum?
Answer 1:

There are at least two ways that we know light can travel through a vacuum. The first is by observation of the Sun and other stars.

Astronauts have measured the pressure in outer space and found that there is a very good vacuum, much better in fact than that which we can easily make on earth. The second is through observations on earth. Scientists have measured the speed of light in a vacuum very carefully, and they have very good pumps for achieving very clean vacuum here on earth.

If we are very precise, we should note that there is no such thing as a perfect vacuum. There is always a little contamination, even in interstellar space or the cleanest laboratory. Vacuum is measured by its pressure, and scientists can with a little expense obtain 10-10 Torr (recall the atmospheric pressure is 760 Torr). At these pressures, the space is mostly empty and light traveling through it is traveling through empty space most of the time, only rarely encountering molecules. Thus, since light travels through it, we know that light travels through a vacuum of at least this level. You might look into what the pressures are for outer space, to get a feeling for the absolute lower limit. Another interesting, but advanced topic is how scientists achieve these pressures.


Answer 2:

Here are some good web sites. Original by Philip Gibbs 1997.

How is the speed of light measured? The speed of light in vacuum c is not measured. It has an exact fixed value when given in standard units. Since 1983 the meter has been defined by international agreement as the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299792458 of a second. This makes the speed of light exactly 299,792.458 km/s. Since the inch is defined as 2.54 centimeters, the speed of light also has an exact value in non-metric units. This definition only makes sense because the speed of light in vacuum is constant; a fact which is subject to experimental verification (see relativity FAQ article Is the speed of light constant?). Experiments are still needed to measure the speed of light in media such as air and water.

Before the seventeenth century it was generally thought that light is transmitted instantaneously. This was supported by the observation that there is no noticeable lag in the position of the Earth's shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse as would be expected if c is finite. Now we know that light is just too fast for the lag to be noticeable. Galileo doubted that light speed is infinite and described an experiment to measure its speed by covering and uncovering lanterns observed at a distance of a few miles. We don't know if he really attempted the experiment, but again c is too high for such a method to work.

The first successful measurement of c was made by Olaus Roemer in 1676. He noticed that the time between the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter was less as the distance away from Earth is decreasing than when it is increasing. He correctly surmised that this is due to the varying length of time it takes for light to travel from Jupiter to Earth as the distance changes. He obtained a value equivalent to 214,000 km/s which was very approximate because planetary distances were not accurately known at that time.

In 1728 James Bradley made another estimate by observing stellar aberration, being the apparent displacement of stars due to the motion of the Earth around the Sun. He observed a star in Draco and found that its apparent position changed during the year. All stellar positions are affected equally in this way. This distinguishes the effect from parallax which affects nearby stars more noticeably. A useful analogy to help understand aberration is to imagine the effect of motion on the angle at which rain falls. If you stand still in the rain when there is no wind it comes down vertically on your head. If you run through the rain it appears to come at you from an angle and hit you on the front. Bradley measured this angle for starlight. Knowing the speed of the Earth around the Sun he found a value for the speed of light of 301,000 km/s.

The first measurement of c on Earth was by Armand Fizeau in 1849. He used a beam of light reflected from a mirror 8 km away. The beam passed through the gaps between teeth of a rapidly rotating wheel. The speed of the wheel was increased until the returning light passed through the next gap and could be seen. Then c was calculated to be 315,000 km/s. Leon Foucault improved on this a year later by using rotating mirrors and got the much more accurate answer of 298,000 km/s. His technique was good enough to confirm that light travels slower in water than in air.

After Maxwell published his theory of electromagnetism it became possible to calculate the speed of light indirectly from the magnetic permeability and electric permittivity of free space. This was first done by Weber and Kohlrausch in 1857. In 1907 Rosa and Dorsey obtained 299,788 km/s in this way. It was the most accurate value at that time.Many other methods were employed to improve accuracy further. It soon became necessary to correct for the refractive index of air. In 1958 Froome had the value of 299,792.5 km/s using a microwave interferometer and a Kerr cell shutter. After 1970 the development of lasers with very high spectral stability and accurate cesium clocks made even better measurements possible. Up until then the changing definition of the meter had always kept ahead of the accuracy in measurements of the speed of light. Then the point was reached where the speed of light was known to within an error of plus or minus 1 m/s. It became more practical to fix the value of c in the definition of the meter and use atomic clocks and lasers to measure accurate distances instead.

Hope this helps.

Answer 3:

You can answer this question yourself. Look up into the sky, what do you see? Unless it is cloudy you can see the sun or stars and the moon. The reason you can see each object is that light has traveled a great distance through a vacuum to your eyeball. There have also been experiments on earth that require light to pass through a man made vacuum.

Scientist actually use the speed and properties of light traveling through a vacuum as a standard.



Click Here to return to the search form.

University of California, Santa Barbara Materials Research Laboratory National Science Foundation
This program is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and UCSB School-University Partnerships
Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California,
All Rights Reserved.
UCSB Terms of Use