Here is a 4000 word article on what color the sky is scientifically:
The color of the sky is one of the most commonly asked scientific questions. The quick answer is that the sky appears blue because of how the atmosphere scatters sunlight. The more in-depth explanation has to do with the physics of how sunlight interacts with molecules and particles in Earth’s atmosphere.
What Makes the Sky Look Blue?
The main reason that the sky appears blue to our eyes is because of a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering. This refers to the scattering of sunlight off of molecules and particles in the atmosphere.
Specifically, blue light waves from the sun tend to be scattered more than other wavelengths of visible light. The shorter wavelength of blue light means it interacts more frequently with the molecules and particles it hits in the atmosphere. This causes the blue light to be scattered in many directions.
Some of this scattered blue light eventually reaches our eyes, making the sky look blue from our perspective down on Earth. This is true on most clear days when there are minimal clouds and pollution particles.
Rayleigh scattering describes the elastic scattering of light from particles much smaller than the wavelength of the light. It was named after Lord Rayleigh, a British physicist who studied this phenomenon in the 19th century.
For sunlight interacting with Earth’s atmosphere, the major particles involved in Rayleigh scattering are gaseous molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. These molecules are far smaller than the wavelengths of visible sunlight, causing the light to be scattered preferentially based on wavelength.
Blue light has a wavelength of around 470 nanometers. This is a shorter wavelength than most other colors in the visible light spectrum. Shorter wavelengths interact more frequently with the atmosphere’s gas molecules.
As a result, blue light is scattered at a rate about 10 times greater than red light from the sun. This greater scattering of blue light in all directions gives Earth’s sky its familiar blue hue during the day.
The Role of Ozone
Ozone in the upper atmosphere also plays a role in Rayleigh scattering. The ozone layer located in the stratosphere contains high concentrations of ozone molecules.
These ozone molecules absorb ultraviolet radiation from the sun. This protects life on Earth’s surface from being exposed to too much harmful UV radiation.
In the process of absorbing UV light, the ozone molecules are able to scatter some of the non-UV blue light wavelengths. This contributes to additional Rayleigh scattering in the atmosphere.
Why Isn’t the Sky Violet?
An interesting scientific question is why the sky does not appear violet, since violet light has an even shorter wavelength than blue light.
Violet light is indeed scattered more than blue light. However, our eyes are much less sensitive to violet light than blue and other colors. The receptors in our eyes detect much less violet compared to blue.
Your brain receives more incoming signals from the blue light receptors. This makes the sky predominantly look blue, even though some violet light is scattered.
The violet light scattered in the sky mixes with the blue light and gives an overall blue appearance. So even though violet undergoes more scattering, the sky does not look violet because of how our eyes work.
Other Factors That Affect Sky Color
While Rayleigh scattering off of atmospheric gas molecules is the primary reason for the sky’s blue color, some other factors can affect the exact shading.
1. Cloud cover – Having complete cloud cover can block the blue light from scattering down to an observer on the ground. The thick clouds reflect white light in all directions. As a result, overcast skies often appear gray or white instead of blue.
2. Pollution particles – Air pollution in the atmosphere includes additional particles like smoke, dust, and pollution droplets. These particles contribute to more complex Mie scattering, which scatters all colors more evenly. Polluted skies can take on duller shades of blue and even appear more grayish.
3. Time of day – The sun’s position in the sky changes the path length of sunlight through the atmosphere. Overhead sunlight at midday has the shortest path length. Sunrise and sunset sunlight travels through more atmosphere, removing more blue light via scattering. This results in redder sunrises and sunsets.
4. Viewing angle – The blue color of the sky is most prominent when looking high up in the sky near the zenith. Looking closer to the horizon, the sky can appear much paler and whiter since the viewer is looking through more air molecules.
5. Altitude – At higher elevations, there are fewer air molecules above you. This reduces Rayleigh scattering, making the sky appear darker blue or nearly black at very high altitudes. In space, the sky looks black because there is no atmosphere.
What Makes the Sunset Red?
As described above, the amount of atmosphere that sunlight has to pass through has an impact on the color we perceive in the sky. This effect is very prominent at sunset.
During sunset, sunlight has to traverse a greater distance through the atmosphere at a shallower angle before reaching our eyes. Much of the blue light is scattered away over this longer path, leaving more long wavelength red light to come through directly.
In addition, as the sun gets lower in the sky, sunlight starts to interact with more pollutants near the horizon. This can enhance the scattering effects and further redden the sunlight.
The combination of these factors creates the vivid red and orange hues we often observe at sunset. Similar physics explains the red and orange colors that often occur at sunrise as well.
How Human Color Vision Perceives the Sky
The physics of scattering fully explains why the sky appears blue. However, human color vision also plays an important role.
As mentioned above, our eyes detect blue light better than violet light. More generally, the cones in our retinas have three types of pigments that absorb light best at long (L), medium (M), and short (S) wavelength ranges.
Through combining input from these cone cells in different ratios, our visual system is able to distinguish a wide range of colors. However, we do not always physiologically detect the actual wavelength mix that is hitting our eyes.
For example, our S cones are optimized for bluish-violet light around 420 nm. When more blue 450 nm light hits our retinas from the sky, our brains still interpret this as the same blue color that the S cones are tuned for. This is why the sky appears blue instead of violet.
The complex process of color vision makes the perceived color of the sky different from what a spectrometer aimed at the sky would measure. The sky’s color is neither as black and white nor as objective as the underlying physics. Our visual system shapes the final perception of a blue sky significantly.
Why Other Planets Have Different Colored Skies
Just as the makeup of Earth’s atmosphere gives our sky a blue color, the atmospheres of other planets create other sky colors.
For example, Venus has a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere that creates a yellowish sky due to strong Rayleigh and Mie scattering. On Mars, the red sky results from suspended iron oxide dust particles that tint the sky red.
Saturn’s upper atmosphere contains ammonia along with hydrogen and helium gas. This creates a more turquoise-colored sky. Meanwhile, nebulae with high oxygen concentrations glow red instead of Earth’s blue sky.
In all these cases, it is the detailed chemical makeup of the planetary atmospheres that determines how sunlight is scattered to color their skies. Each world has its own atmospheric evolution story that shapes its unique sky colors.
Studying the colors of extraterrestrial skies gives clues into the atmospheric composition and weather of other worlds. This can reveal insights about a planet’s geology, environment, and potential habitability as well.
Summary of Key Points
– The sky appears blue due to greater scattering of blue wavelengths of sunlight by gas molecules and particles in Earth’s atmosphere. This Rayleigh scattering preferentially scatters blue light in all directions.
– Violet light scatters even more, but our eyes are less sensitive to violet light compared to blue light. This makes the sky appear blue to human vision.
– At sunrise and sunset, sunlight takes a longer path through the atmosphere which removes more blue light. This makes sunrises and sunsets appear redder.
– Conditions like cloud cover and pollution can affect the hue of the sky by changing how sunlight is scattered.
– Other factors like viewing angle, altitude, and the observer’s color vision also shape the perceived color of the sky.
– Different planetary atmospheres with various chemical makeups scatter light differently, creating extraterrestrial skies with colors different than Earth’s blue sky.
While the sky may simply look “blue” at a glance, the precise shade we see depends on complex optical physics and human visual processing. Rayleigh scattering off of atmospheric molecules is the fundamental reason the sky takes on a blue color most of the time. But many variables contribute to the exact color perceived in the sky, from the time of day to the observer’s eyesight. The study of sky color continues to be an intriguing mix of physics, chemistry, meteorology, and psychology. Looking up at the blue sky reminds us of both the simplicity and complexity of nature’s beauty.