20. Rocket launch sites

Suppose you are planning to build an orbital rocket launching facility. Where are you going to put it? There are several issues to consider.

  • You want the site to be on politically friendly and stable territory. This strongly biases you to building it in your own country, or a dependent territory. Placing it close to an existing military facility is also useful for logistical reasons, especially if any of the space missions are military in nature.
  • You want to build it far enough away from population centres that if something goes catastrophically wrong there will be minimal damage and casualties, but not so far away that it is logistically difficult to move equipment and personnel there.
  • You want to place the site to take advantage of the fact that the rocket begins its journey with the momentum it has from standing on the ground as the Earth rotates. This is essentially a free boost to its launch speed. Since the Earth rotates west to east, the rocket stationary on the pad relative to the Earth actually begins with a significant momentum in an easterly direction. Rocket engineers would be crazy to ignore this.

One consequence of the rocket’s initial momentum is that it’s much easier to launch a rocket towards the east than towards the west. Launching towards the east, you start with some bonus velocity in the same direction, and so your rocket can get away with being less powerful than otherwise. This represents a serious saving in cost and construction difficulty. If you were to launch a rocket towards the west, you’d have to engineer it to be much more powerful, since it first has to overcome its initial eastward velocity, and then generate the entirety of the westward velocity from scratch. So virtually no rockets are ever launched towards the west. Rockets are occasionally launched to the north or south to put their payloads into polar orbits, but most are placed into so-called near-equatorial orbits that travel substantially west-to-east.

In turn, this means that when selecting a launch site, you want to choose a place where the territory to the eastern side of the site is free of population centres, again to avoid disaster if something goes wrong during a launch. The easiest way to achieve this is to place your launch site on the eastern coast of a landmass, so the rockets launch out over the ocean, though you can also do it if you can find a large unpopulated region and place your launch site near the western side.

When we look at the major rocket launch facilities around the world, they generally follow these principles. The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is acceptably near Orlando, Florida, but far enough away to avoid disasters, and adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for military logistics. It launches east over the Atlantic Ocean.

Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center launch pads A (foreground) and B (background). The Atlantic Ocean is to the right. (Public domain image by NASA.)

A NASA historical report has this to say about the choice of a launch site for Saturn series rockets that would later take humans to the moon[1]:

The short-lived plan to transport the Saturn by air was prompted by ABMA’s interest in launching a rocket into equatorial orbit from a site near the Equator; Christmas Island in the Central Pacific was a likely choice. Equatorial launch sites offered certain advantages over facilities within the continental United States. A launching due east from a site on the Equator could take advantage of the earth’s maximum rotational velocity (460 meters per second) to achieve orbital speed. The more frequent overhead passage of the orbiting vehicle above an equatorial base would facilitate tracking and communications. Most important, an equatorial launch site would avoid the costly dogleg technique, a prerequisite for placing rockets into equatorial orbit from sites such as Cape Canaveral, Florida (28 degrees north latitude). The necessary correction in the space vehicle’s trajectory could be very expensive – engineers estimated that doglegging a Saturn vehicle into a low-altitude equatorial orbit from Cape Canaveral used enough extra propellant to reduce the payload by as much as 80%. In higher orbits, the penalty was less severe but still involved at least a 20% loss of payload. There were also significant disadvantages to an equatorial launch base: higher construction costs (about 100% greater), logistics problems, and the hazards of setting up an American base on foreign soil.

Russia’s main launch facility, Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (former USSR territory), launches east over the largely uninhabited Betpak-Dala desert region. China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre launches east over the uninhabited Altyn-Tagh mountains. The Guiana Space Centre, the major launch facility of the European Space Agency, is located on the coast of French Guiana, an overseas department of France on the north-east coast of South America, where it launches east over the Atlantic Ocean.

Guiana Space Centre

Guiana Space Centre, French Guiana. The Atlantic Ocean is in the background. (Photo: ESA-Stephane Corvaja, released under ESA Standard Licence.)

Another consideration when choosing your rocket launching site is that the initial momentum boost provided by the Earth’s rotation is greatest at the equator, where the rotational speed of the Earth’s surface is greatest. At the equator, the surface is moving 40,000 km (the circumference of the Earth) per day, or 1670 km/h. Compare this to latitude 41° (roughly New York City, or Madrid), where the speed is 1260 km/h, and you see that our rockets get a free 400 km/h boost by being launched from the equator compared to these locations. So you want to place your launch facility as close to the equator as is practical, given the other considerations.

Rotation of Earth

Because the Earth is a rotating globe, the equatorial regions are moving faster than anywhere else, and provide more of a boost to rocket launch velocities.

The European Space Agency, in particular, has problems with launching rockets from Europe, because of its dense population, unavailability of an eastern coastline, and distance from the equator. This makes French Guiana much more attractive, even though it’s so far away. The USA has placed its major launch facility in just about the best location possible in the continental US. Anywhere closer to the equator on the east coast is taken up by Miami’s urban sprawl. The former USSR went for southern Kazakhstan as a compromise between getting as far south as possible, and being close enough to Moscow. China’s more southern and coastal regions are much more heavily populated, so they went with a remote inland area (possibly also to help keep it hidden for military reasons).

All of these facilities so far are in the northern hemisphere. There are no major rocket launch facilities in the southern hemisphere, and in fact only two sites from where orbital flight has been achieved: Australia’s Woomera Range Complex, which is a remote air force base chosen historically for military logistical reasons (including nuclear weapons testing as well as rocketry in the wake of World War II), and New Zealand’s Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, a new private facility for launching small satellites, whose location was governed by the ability to privately acquire and develop land.

But if you were to build a major launch facility in the southern hemisphere, where would you put it?

A major space facility was first proposed for Australia in 1986, with plans for it to be the world’s first commercial spaceport. The proposed site? Near Weipa, on the Cape York Peninsula, essentially as close to the equator as it’s possible to get in Australia.

Site of Weipa in Australia

Site of Weipa in Australia. Apart from Darwin which is at almost exactly the same latitude, there is no larger town further north in Australia. (Adapted from a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International image by John Tann, from Wikimedia Commons.)

The proposal eventually floundered due to lack of money and protests from indigenous land owners, but there is now a current State Government inquiry into constructing a satellite launching facility in Queensland, again in the far north. As a news story points out, “From a very simple perspective, we’ve got potential launch capacity, being closer to the equator in a place like Queensland,” and “the best place to launch satellites from Australia is the coast of Queensland. The closer you are to the equator, the more kick you get from the Earth’s spin.”[2]

So rocket engineers in the southern hemisphere definitely want to build their launch facilities as close to the equator as practically possible too. Repeating what I said earlier, you’d be crazy not to. And this is a consequence of the fact that the Earth is a rotating globe.

On the other hand, if the Earth were flat and non-rotating (as is the case in the most popular flat Earth models), there would be no such incentive to build your launch facility anywhere compared to anywhere else, and equatorial locations would not be so coveted. And if the Earth were flat and rotating around the north pole, then you’d get your best bang for buck not near the equator, but near the rim of the rotating disc, where the linear speed of rotation is highest. If that were the case, then everyone would be clamouring to build their launch sites as close to Antarctica as possible, which is clearly not the case in the real (globular) world.

[1] Benson, C. D., Faherty, W. B. Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations. Chapter 1.2, NASA Special Publication-4204 in the NASA History Series, 1978. https://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4204/contents.html (accessed 2019-07-15).

[2] “Rocket launches touted for Queensland as State Government launches space industry inquiry”. ABC News, 6 September 2018. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-06/queensland-shoots-for-the-stars-to-become-space-hub/10205686 (accessed 2019-07-15).

19. Bridge towers

When architects design and construction engineers build towers, they make them vertical. By “vertical” we mean straight up and down or, more formally, in line with the direction of gravity. A tall, thin structure is most stable if built vertically, as then the centre of mass is directly above the centre of the base area.

If the Earth were flat, then vertical towers would all be parallel, no matter where they were built. On the other hand, if the Earth is curved like a sphere, then “vertical” really means pointing towards the centre of the Earth, in a radial direction. In this case, towers built in different places, although all locally vertical, would not be parallel.

The Humber Bridge spans the Humber estuary near Kingston upon Hull in northern England. The Humber estuary is very broad, and the bridge spans a total of 2.22 kilometres from one bank to the other. It’s a single-span suspension bridge, a type of bridge consisting of two tall towers, with cables strung in hanging arcs between the towers, and also from the top of each tower to anchor points on shore. (It’s the same structural design as the more famous Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.) The cables extend in both directions from the top of each tower to balance the tension on either side, so that they don’t pull the towers over. The road deck of the bridge is suspended below the main cables by thinner cables that hang vertically from the main cables. The weight of the road deck is thus supported by the main cables, which distribute the load back to the towers. The towers support the entire weight of the bridge, so must be strong and, most importantly, exactly vertical.

The Humber Bridge

The Humber Bridge from the southern bank of the Humber. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The towers of the Humber Bridge rest on pylons in the estuary bed. The towers are 1410 metres apart, and 155.5 metres high. If the Earth were flat, the towers would be parallel. But they’re not. The cross-sectional centre lines at the tops of the two towers are 36 millimetres further apart than at the bases. Using similar triangles, we can calculate the radius of the Earth from these dimensions:

Radius = 155.5×1410÷0.036 = 6,090,000 metres

This gives the radius of the Earth as 6100 kilometres, close to the true value of 6370 km.

Size of the Earth from the Humber Bridge

Diagram illustrating use of similar triangles to determine the radius of the Earth from the Humber Bridge data. (Not to scale!)

If this were the whole story, it would pretty much be case closed at this point. However, despite a lot of searching, I couldn’t find any reference to the distances between the towers of the Humber Bridge actually being measured at the top and the bottom. It seems that the figure of 36 mm was probably calculated, assuming the curvature of the Earth, which makes this a circular argument (pun intended).

Interestingly, I did find a paper about measuring the deflection of the north tower of the Humber Bridge caused by wind loading and other dynamic stresses in the structure. The paper is primarily concerned with measuring the motion of the road deck, but they also mounted a kinematic GPS sensor at the top of the northern tower[1].

GPS sensor on Humber Bridge north tower

Kinematic GPS sensor mounted on the top of the north tower of the Humber Bridge. (Reproduced from [1].)

The authors carried out a series of measurements, and show the results for a 15 minute period on 7 March, 1996.

Deflections of Humber Bridge north tower

North-south deflection of the north tower of the Humber Bridge over a 15 minute period. The vertical axis is metres relative to a standard grid reference, so the full vertical range of the graph is 30 mm. (Reproduced from [1].)

From the graph, we can see that the tower wobbles a bit, with deflections of up to about ±10 mm from the mean position. The authors report that the kinematic GPS sensors are capable of measuring deflections as small as a millimetre or two. So from this result we can say that the typical amount of flexing in the Humber Bridge towers is smaller than the supposed 36 mm difference that we should be trying to measure. So, in principle, we could measure the fact that the towers are not parallel, even despite motion of the structure in environmental conditions.

A similar result is seen with the Severn Bridge, a suspension bridge over the Severn River between England and Wales. It has a central span of 988 metres, with towers 136 metres tall. A paper reports measurements made of the flexion of both towers, showing typical deflections at the top are less than 10 mm[2].

Deflections of Severn Bridge towers

Plot of deflection of the top of the suspension towers along the axis of the Severn Bridge. T1 and T2 (upper two lines) are measurements made by two independent sensors at the top of the west tower; T3 and T4 (lower lines) are measurements made by sensors on the east tower. Deflection is in units of metres, so the scale of the maximum deflections is about 10 mm. (Reproduced from [2].)

Okay, so we could in principle measure the mean positions of the tops of suspension bridge towers with enough precision to establish that the towers are further apart at the top than the base. A laser ranging system could do this with ease. Unfortunately, in all my searching I couldn’t find any citations for anyone actually doing this. (If anyone lives near the Humber Bridge and has laser ranging equipment, climbing gear, a certain disregard for authority, and a deathwish, please let me know.)

Something I did find concerned the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York City. It has a slightly smaller central span than the Humber Bridge, with 1298 metres between its two towers, but the towers are taller, at 211 metres. The tops of the towers are reported as being 41.3 mm further apart than the bases, due to the curvature of the Earth. There are also several citations backing up the statement that “the curvature of the Earth’s surface had to be taken into account when designing the bridge” (my emphasis).[3]

Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge

Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, linking Staten Island (background) and Brooklyn (foreground) in New York City. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

So, this prompts the question: Do structural engineers really take into account the curvature of the Earth when designing and building large structures? The answer is—of course—yes, otherwise the large structures they build would be flawed.

There is a basic correction listed in The Engineering Handbook (published by CRC) to account for the curvature of the Earth. Section 162.5 says:

The curved shape of the Earth… makes actual level rod readings too large by the following approximate relationship: C = 0.0239 D2 where C is the error in the rod reading in feet and D is the sighting distance in thousands of feet.[4]

To convert to metric we need to multiply the constant by the number of feet in a metre (because of the squared factor), giving the correction in metres = 0.0784×(distance in km)2. What this means is that over a distance of 1 kilometre, the Earth’s surface curves downwards from a perfectly straight line by 78.4 millimetres. This correction is well known among civil and structural engineers, and is applied in surveying, railway line construction, bridge construction, and other areas. It means that for engineering purposes you can’t treat the Earth as both flat and level over distances of around a kilometre or more, because it isn’t. If you treat it as flat, then a kilometre away your level will be off by 78.4 mm. If you make a surface level (as measured by a level or inclinometer at each point) over a kilometre, then the surface won’t be flat; it will be curved parallel to the curvature of the Earth, and 78.4 mm lower than flat at the far end.

An example of this can be found at the Volkswagen Group test track facility near Ehra-Lessien, Germany. This track has a circuit of 96 km of private road, including a precision level-graded straight 9 km long. Over the 9 km length, the curvature of the Earth drops away from flat by 0.0784×92 = 6.35 metres. This means that if you stand at one end of the straight and someone else stands at the other end, you won’t be able to see each other because of the bulge of the Earth’s curvature in between. The effect can be seen in this video[5].

One set of structures where this difference was absolutely crucial is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) constructed at two sites in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, in the USA.

LIGO site at Hanford

The LIGO site at Hanford, Washington. Each of the two arms of the structure are 4 km long. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

LIGO uses lasers to detect tiny changes in length caused by gravitational waves from cosmic sources passing through the Earth. The lasers travel in sealed tubes 4 km long, which are under high vacuum. Because light travels in a straight line in a vacuum, the tubes must be absolutely straight for the machine to work. The tubes are level in the middle, but over the 2 km on either side, the curvature of the Earth falls away from a straight line by 0.0784×22 = 0.314 metres. So either end of the straight tube is 314 mm higher than the centre of the tube. To build LIGO, they laid a concrete foundation, but they couldn’t make it level over the distance; they had to make it straight. This required special construction techniques, because under normal circumstances (such as Volkswagen’s track at Ehra-Lessien) you want to build things level, not straight.[6]

So, the towers of large suspensions bridges almost certainly are not parallel, due to the curvature of the Earth, although it seems nobody has ever bothered to measure this. But it’s certainly true that structural engineers do take into account the curvature of the Earth for large building projects. They have to, because if they didn’t there would be significant errors and their constructions wouldn’t work as planned. If the Earth were flat they wouldn’t need to do this and wouldn’t bother.

UPDATE 2019-07-10: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has announced a new technique which they can use to detect millimetre-sized shifts in the position of structures such as bridges, using aperture synthesis radar measurements from satellites. So maybe soon we can have more and better measurements of the positions of bridge towers![7]

References:

[1] Ashkenazi, V., Roberts, G. W. “Experimental monitoring of the Humber bridge using GPS”. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Civil Engineering, 120, p. 177-182, 1997. https://doi.org/10.1680/icien.1997.29810

[2] Roberts, G. W., Brown, C. J., Tang, X., Meng, X., Ogundipe, O. “A Tale of Five Bridges; the use of GNSS for Monitoring the Deflections of Bridges”. Journal of Applied Geodesy, 8, p. 241-264, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1515/jag-2014-0013

[3] Wikipedia: “Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verrazzano-Narrows_Bridge, accessed 2019-06-30. In turn, this page cites the following sources for the statement that the curvature of the Earth had to be taken into account during construction:

[3a] Rastorfer, D. Six Bridges: The Legacy of Othmar H. Ammann. Yale University Press, 2000, p. 138. ISBN 978-0-300-08047-6.

[3b] Caro, R.A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Knopf, 1974, p. 752. ISBN 978-0-394-48076-3.

[3c] Adler, H. “The History of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, 50 Years After Its Construction”. Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, November 2014.

[3d] “Verrazano-Narrows Bridge”. MTA Bridges & Tunnels. https://new.mta.info/bridges-and-tunnels/about/verrazzano-narrows-bridge, accessed 2019-06-30.

[4] Dorf, R. C. (editor). The Engineering Handbook, Second Edition, CRC Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0-849-31586-2.

[5] “Bugatti Veyron Top Speed Test”. Top Gear, BBC, 2008. https://youtu.be/LO0PgyPWE3o?t=200, accessed 2019-06-30.

[6] “Facts about LIGO”, LIGO Caltech web site. https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/page/facts, accessed 2019-06-30.

[7] “New Method Can Spot Failing Infrastructure from Space”, NASA JPL web site. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=7447, accessed 2019-07-10.

18. Polar motion

The Earth rotates around an axis, an imaginary straight line that all points not on the line move around in circles. The axis passes through the Earth’s North Pole and the South Pole. So the positions of the two Poles are defined by the position of the rotation axis.

Earth rotation and poles

The Earth’s North and South Poles are defined as the points where the axis of rotation passes through the surface of the planet. (Earth photo is a public domain image from NASA.)

Interestingly, the Earth’s rotation axis is not fixed – it moves slightly. This means that the Earth’s poles move.

The positions of the Earth’s poles can be determined by looking at the motions of the stars. As we’ve already seen, if you observe the positions of stars throughout a night, you will see that they rotate in the sky about a central point. The point on the Earth’s surface directly underneath the centre of rotation of the stars is one of the poles of the Earth.

Star trails in the northern hemisphere

Star trails above Little Hawk Lake in Canada. The northern hemisphere stars rotate around the North Celestial Pole (the point directly above the Earth’s North Pole). The bright spot in the centre is Polaris, the pole star. The circles are somewhat distorted in the upper corners of the photo because of the wide angle lens used. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 image by Dave Doe.)

Through the 19th century, astronomers were improving the precision of astronomical observations to the point where the movement of the Earth’s rotational poles needed to be accounted for in the positions of celestial objects. The motion of the poles was also beginning to affect navigation, because as the poles move, so does the grid system of latitude and longitude that ships rely on to reach their destinations and avoid navigational hazards. In 1899 the International Geodetic Association established a branch known as the International Latitude Service.

The fledgling International Latitude Service established a network of six observatories, all located close to latitude 39° 08’ north, spread around the world. The initial observatories were located in Gaithersburg, Maryland, USA; Cincinatti, Ohio, USA; Ukiah, California, USA; Mizusawa, Japan; Charjui, Turkestan; and Carloforte, Italy. The station in Charjui closed due to economic problems caused by war, but a new station opened in Kitab, Uzbekistan after World War I. Each observatory engaged in a program of observing the positions of 144 selected reference stars, and the data from each station were cross referenced to provide accurate measurements of the location of the North Pole.

International Latitude Service station in Ukiah

International Latitude Service station in Ukiah, California. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

In 1962, the International Time Bureau founded the International Polar Motion Service, which incorporated the International Latitude Service observations and additional astronomical observations to provide a reference of higher accuracy, suitable for both navigation and defining time relative to Earth’s rotation. Finally in 1987, the the International Astronomical Union and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics established the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS), which took over from the International Polar Motion Service. The IERS is the current authority responsible for timekeeping and Earth-based coordinate systems, including the definitions of time units, the introduction of leap seconds to keep clocks in synch with the Earth’s rotation, and definitions of latitude and longitude, as well as measurements of the motion of the Earth’s poles, which are necessary for accurate use of navigation systems such as GPS and Galileo.

The motion of Earth’s poles can be broken down into three components:

1. An annual elliptical wobble. Over the period of a year, the Earth’s poles move around in an ellipse, with the long axis of the ellipse about 6 metres in length. In March, the North Pole is about 6 metres from where it is in September (though see below). This motion is generally agreed by scientists to be caused by the annual shift in air pressure between winter and summer over the northern and southern hemispheres. In particular there is an imbalance between the Northern Atlantic ocean and Asia, with higher air pressure over the ocean in the northern winter, but higher air pressure over the Asian continent in summer. This change in the mass distribution of the atmosphere is enough to cause the observed wobble.

Annual wobble of North Pole

Annual elliptical wobble of the Earth’s North Pole. Deviation is given in milliarcseconds of axial tilt; 100 milliarcseconds corresponds to a bit over 3 metres at ground level. (Figure adapted from [1].)

2. Superimposed on the annual elliptical wobble is another, circular, wobble, with a period of around 433 days. This is called the Chandler wobble, named after its discoverer, American astronomer Seth Carlo Chandler, who found it in 1891. The Chandler wobble occurs because the Earth is not a perfect sphere. The Earth is slightly elliptical, with the radius at the equator about 20 kilometres larger than the polar radius. When elliptical objects spin, they experience a slight wobble in the rotation known as free nutation. This is the sort of wobble seen in a spinning rugby ball or American football in flight (where the effect is exaggerated by the ball’s exaggerated elliptical shape). This wobble would die away over time, but is driven by changes in the mass distribution of cold and warm water in the oceans and high and low pressure systems in the atmosphere. The Chandler wobble has a diameter of about 9 metres at the poles.

The combined effect of the annual wobble and the Chandler wobble is that the North and South Poles move in a spiralling pattern, sometimes circling with a diameter up to 15 metres, then reducing down to about 3 metres, before increasing again. This beat pattern occurs over a period of about 7 years.

Annual _ Chandler wobble of North Pole

Graph showing the movement of the North Pole over a period of 4500 days (12.3 years), with time on the vertical axis and the spiralling motion mapped in the x and y axes. The motion tickmarks are 0.1 arcsecond in rotation angle of the axis apart, corresponding to about 3 metres of motion along the ground at the Pole. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

3. The third and final motion of the Earth’s poles is a systematic drift, of about 200 millimetres per year. Since 1900, the central point of the spiral wobbles of the North Pole has drifted by about 20 metres. This drift is caused by changes in the mass distribution of Earth due to shifts in its structure: movement of molten rock in the mantle, isostatic rebound of crust following the last glacial period, and more recently the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet in the last few decades has shifted the direction of polar drift dramatically; one of the serious indications of secondary changes to the Earth caused by human-induced climate change. Changes in Earth’s mass distribution alter its rotational moment of inertia, and the rotational axis adjusts to conserve angular momentum.

Motion of North Pole since 1900

Plot of motion of the North Pole since 1900. The actual position of the Pole from 2008 to 2014 is shown with blue crosses, showing the annual and Chandler wobbles. The mean position (i.e. the centre of the wobbles) is shown for 1900 to 2014 as the green line. The pole has mostly drifted towards the 80° west meridian, but has changed direction dramatically since 2000. (Figure reproduced from [2].)

Each of the three components of Earth’s polar motion are: (a) observable with 19th century technology, (b) accurately measurable using current technology, and (c) understandable and quantitatively explainable using the fact that the Earth is a rotating spheroid and our knowledge of its structure.

If the Earth were flat, it would not be possible to reconcile the changes in position of the North and South Poles with the known shifts in mass distribution of the Earth. The Chandler wobble would not even have any reason to exist at close to its observed period unless the Earth was an almost spherical ellipsoid.

References:

[1] Höpfner, J. “Polar motion at seasonal frequencies”. Journal of Geodynamics, 22, p. 51-61, 1996. https://doi.org/10.1016/0264-3707(96)00012-9

[2] Dick, W., Thaller, D. IERS Annual Report 2013. International Earth Rotation Service, 2014. https://www.iers.org/IERS/EN/Publications/AnnualReports/AnnualReport2013.html

17. Light time corrections

In the 16th century, the naval powers of Europe were engaged in a race to explore and colonise lands previously unknown to Europeans (though many were of course already inhabited), and reap the rewards of the new found resources. They were limited by the accuracy of navigation at sea. Determining latitude was a relatively simple matter of sighting the angle of a star or the sun through a sextant. But because of the daily rotation of the Earth, determining the longitude by sighting a celestial object required knowing the time of day. Mechanical clocks of the era were rendered useless by the rocking of a ship, making this a major problem.

Solving the problem would give such an advantage to the country holding the secret that in 1598 King Philip III of Spain offered a prize of 6000 ducats plus an annual pension of 2000 ducats for life to whoever could devise a means of measuring longitude at sea. In 1610 the prize was still unclaimed, and in that year Galileo Galilei trained his first telescope on Jupiter, becoming the first person to observe the planet’s largest four moons. He studied their movements, and a couple of years later had produced orbital tables that allowed their positions to be calculated months or years in advance. These tables included the times when a moon would slip into Jupiter’s shadow, and be eclipsed, disappearing from view because it no longer reflected sunlight.

Galileo wrote to King Philip in 1616, proposing a method of telling the time at sea by observing the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons. One could pinpoint the time by observing an eclipse, and then use an observation of a star to calculate the longitude. Although the method could work in principle, observing an eclipse of a barely visible object through the narrow field of view of a telescope while standing on a rocking ship was practically impossible, and it never worked in practice.

Jupiter and Io

Jupiter and its innermost large moon, Io, as seen by NASA’s Cassini space probe. (Galileo’s view was nowhere near as good as this!) (Public Domain image by NASA.)

By the 1660s, Giovanni Cassini had developed Galileo’s method as a way of measuring precise longitudes on land, as an aid to calculating distances and making accurate maps. In 1671 Cassini moved to take up directorship of the Royal Observatory in Paris. He dispatched his assistant Jean Picard to Uraniborg, the former observatory of Tycho Brahe, near Copenhagen, partly to make measurements of eclipses of Jupiter’s moon Io, to accurately calculate the longitude difference between the two observatories. Picard himself employed the assistance of a young Dane named Ole Rømer.

Ole Rømer

Portrait of Ole Rømer by Jacob Coning. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The moon Io orbits Jupiter every 42.5 hours and is close enough to be eclipsed on each orbit, so an eclipse is visible every few days, weather and daylight hours permitting. After observing well over 100 eclipses, Rømer moved to Paris to assist Cassini himself, and continued recording eclipses of Io over the next few years. In these observations Cassini noticed some odd discrepancies. In particular, the time between successive eclipses got shorter when the Earth was approaching Jupiter in its orbit, and longer several months later when the Earth was moving away from Jupiter. Cassini realised that this could be explained if the light from Io did not arrive at Earth instantaneously, but rather took time to travel the intervening distance. When the Earth is closer to Jupiter, the light has less distance to cover, so the eclipse appears to occur earlier, and vice versa: when the Earth is further away the eclipse appears to be later because the light takes longer to reach Earth. Cassini made an announcement to this effect to the French Academy of Sciences in 1676.

Ole Rømer's eclipse notes

Ole Rømer’s notebook showing recordings of the dates and times of eclipses of Io from 1667 to 1677. “Imm” means immersion into Jupiter’s shadow, and “Emer” means emergence from Jupiter’s shadow. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

However, it was common wisdom at the time that light travelled instantaneously, and Cassini later retreated from his suggestion and did not pursue it further. Rømer, on the other hand, was intrigued and continued to investigate. In 1678 he published his findings. He argued that as the Earth moved in its orbit away from Jupiter, successive eclipses would each occur with the Earth roughly 200 Earth-diameters further away from Jupiter than the previous one. Using the geometry of the orbit and his observations, Rømer calculated that it must take light approximately 11 minutes to cross a distance equal to the diameter of the Earth’s orbit. This is a little low—it actually takes about 16 and a half minutes—but it’s the right order of magnitude. So for the first time, we had some idea how fast light travels. And as we’ve just seen, the finite speed of light can have a significant effect on the observed timing of astronomical observations.

Ole Rømer's figure

Figure 2 from Rømer’s paper, illustrating the difference in distance between Earth and Jupiter between successive eclipses as Earth recedes from Jupiter (LK) and approaches Jupiter (FG). Reproduced from [1].

The finite speed of light means that astronomical events don’t occur when we see them. We only see the event after enough time has elapsed for the light to travel to Earth. This is important for events with precisely measurable times, such as eclipses, occultations, the brightness variations of variable stars, and the radio pulses of remote pulsars.

Not only do you need to correct for the time it takes light to reach Earth, but the correction is different depending on where you are on Earth. An observer observing an object that is directly overhead is closer to it than an observer seeing the same object on the horizon. The observer seeing the object on the horizon is further away by the radius of the Earth. The radius of the Earth is 6370 km, and it takes light a little over 21 milliseconds to travel this distance. So astronomical events observed on the horizon appear to occur 21 milliseconds later than they do to someone observing the same event overhead. This effect is significant enough to be mentioned explicitly in a paper discussing the timing of variable stars:

“More disturbing effects become significant which require more conventions and more complex reduction procedures. By far the biggest effect is the topocentric light-time correction (up to 20 msec).”[2]

Topocentric refers to measuring from a specific point on the surface of the Earth. Depending where on Earth you are, the timing of observed astronomical events can appear to vary by up to 20 ms.

Not only does the light travel time affect the observed time of astronomical events, it also affects the observed position of some astronomical objects, most importantly solar system objects that move noticeably over the few hours that light takes to travel to Earth from them. When we observe an object such as a planet or an asteroid, we see it in the position that it was when the light left it, not where it is at the time that we see it. So for such objects, a corrected position needs to be calculated. The correction in observed position of a moving astronomical object due to the finite speed of light is, somewhat confusingly, also known as light time correction.

Light time correction of observed position is critical in determining the orbits of bodies such as asteroids and comets with accuracy. A paper describing general methods for determining orbital parameters from observations notes that Earth-based observations are necessarily topocentric, and states in the description of the method that:

“In the case of asteroid or comet orbits, the light-time correction has been computed.”[3]

Finally, a recent paper on determining the orbital parameters of near-Earth objects (which pose a potential threat of catastrophic collision with Earth) points out, where ρ is the topocentric distance:

“Note that we include a light-time correction by subtracting ρ/c from the observed epochs for any propagation computation with c as speed of light.”[4]

All of these corrections, which must be applied to astronomical observations where either (a) timings must be known to less than a second or (b) positions must be known accurately to determine orbits, are different by a light travel time of 21 ms for observers looking at objects directly overhead versus observers looking towards the horizon. And in between the light time corrections are 21 ms × (1 minus the sine of the observation zenith angle).

light time corrections on a spherical Earth

Diagram of light time corrections. Observation points where an astronomical event are on the horizon are 6370 km further away than observation points where the event is directly overhead.

This implies that places on Earth where an astronomical object appears near the horizon are a bit over 6000 km further away from the object than the location where the object is directly overhead. This is true no matter which object is observed, meaning it is independent of which position on Earth is directly under it. This cannot be so if the Earth is flat.

light time corrections on a flat Earth

Geometry of light time corrections on a flat Earth.

Observation points on Earth where an astronomical event is overhead and on the horizon are separated by 10,000 km. If the Earth is flat, then the geometry must be something like that shown in the diagram above. The astronomical event is a distance x above the flat Earth, such that the distance from the event to a point 10,000 km along the surface is x plus the measured light travel time distance of 6370 km. Applying Pythagoras’s theorem:

(6370 + x)2 = 100002 + x2

Solving for x gives 4660 km. So measurements of light time correction imply that all astronomical events are 4660 km above the flat Earth. This means the elevation angle of the event seen from 10,000 km away is arctan(4660/10,000) = 25°, well above the horizon, which is inconsistent with observation (and the trigonometry of all the intermediate angles doesn’t work either). It’s also easy to show by other observations that astronomical objects are not all at the same distance – some are thousands, millions, or more times further away than others, and they are all much further away than 4660 km.

So the measurement of light time corrections imply that observers on Earth are positioned on the surface of a sphere. In other words, that the Earth is spherical in shape.

References:

[1] Rømer, O. (“A Demonstration Concerning the Motion of Light”.) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 12, p. 893-94, 1678. (Originally published in French as “Demonstration touchant le mouvement de la lumiere trouvé”. Journal des Sçavans, p. 276-279, 1677.) https://www.jstor.org/stable/101779

[2] Bastian, U. “The Time Coordinate Used in the Variable-star Community”. Information Bulletin on Variable Stars, No. 4822, #1, 2000. https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2000IBVS.4822….1B/abstract

[3] Dumoulin, C. “Unified Iterative Methods in Orbit Determination”. Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy, 59, 1, p. 73-89, 1994. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00691971

[4] Frühauf, M., Micheli, M., Santana-Ros, T., Jehn, R., Koschny, D., Torralba, O. R. “A systematic ranging technique for follow-ups of NEOs detected with the Flyeye telescope”. Proceedings of the 1st NEO and Debris Detection Conference, Darmstadt, 2019. https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2019arXiv190308419F/abstract

16. Lunar eclipses

Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth is positioned between the sun and the moon, so that the Earth blocks some or all of the sunlight from directly reaching the moon. Because of the relative sizes of the sun, Earth, and moon, and their distances from one another, the Earth’s shadow is large enough to completely cover the moon.

To talk about eclipses, we need to define some terms. The sun is a large, extended source of light, not a point source, so the shadows that objects cast in sunlight have two components: the umbra, where light from the sun is totally blocked, and the penumbra, where light from the sun is partially blocked.

Umbra and penumbra

Diagram showing the umbra and penumbra cast by the Earth. Not to scale. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

When the moon passes entirely inside the Earth’s umbra, that is a total lunar eclipse. Although no sunlight reaches the moon directly, the moon is not completely dark, because some sunlight refracts (bends) through the Earth’s atmosphere and reaches the moon. This light is red for the same reason that sunsets on Earth tend to be red: the atmosphere scatters blue light more easily than red, so red light penetrates large distances of air more easily. This is why during a total lunar eclipse the moon is a reddish colour. Although a totally eclipsed moon looks bright enough to our eyes, it’s actually very dark compared to a normal full moon. Our eyes are very good at compensating for the different light levels without us being aware of it.

Total lunar eclipse

Total lunar eclipse of 28 August 2007 (photographed by me). 1 second exposure at ISO 800 and aperture f/2.8.

The amount of refracted light reaching the moon depends on the cleanliness of the Earth’s atmosphere. If there have been recent major volcanic eruptions, then significantly less light passes through to reach the moon. The brightness of the moon during a total lunar eclipse can be measured using the Danjon scale, ranging from 0 for very dark eclipses, to 4 for the brightest ones. After the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, the next few lunar eclipses were extremely dark, with the eclipse of December 1992 rating a 0 on the Danjon scale.

When the moon is only partly inside the Earth’s umbra, that is a partial lunar eclipse. A partial phase occurs on either side of a total lunar eclipse, as the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow, and it can also occur as the maximal phase of an eclipse if the moon’s orbit isn’t aligned to carry it fully within the umbra. During a partial eclipse phase, you can see the edge of the Earth’s umbral shadow on the moon.

Partial lunar eclipse phase

Partial phase of the same lunar eclipse of 28 August 2007. 1/60 second exposure at ISO 100 and f/8, which is 1/3840 the exposure of the totality photo above. If this photo was 3840 times as bright, the dark part at the bottom would look as bright as the totality photo (and the bright part would be completely washed out).

Lunar eclipses can only occur at the full moon – those times when the sun and moon are on opposite sides of the Earth. The moon orbits the Earth roughly once every 29.5 days and so full moons occur every 29.5 days. However, lunar eclipses occur only two to five times per year, because the moon’s orbit is tilted by 5.1° relative to the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. This means that sometimes when the moon is full it is above or below the Earth’s shadow, rather than inside it.

Okay, so what can lunar eclipses tell us about the shape of the Earth? A lunar eclipse is a unique opportunity to see the shape of the Earth via its shadow. A shadow is the same shape as a cross-section of the object casting the shadow. Let’s have another look at the shape of Earth’s shadow on the moon, in a series of photos taken during a lunar eclipse:

Lunar eclipse montage

Montage of photos taken over 83 minutes during the lunar eclipse of 28 August 2007. Again, the bottom row of photos have 3840 times the exposure of the top row, so the eclipsed moon is nearly 4000 times dimmer than the full moon.

As you can see, the edge of the Earth’s shadow is curved. The fact that the moon’s surface is curved doesn’t affect this, because we are looking from the same direction as the Earth, so we see the same cross-section of the moon. (Your own shadow looks the shape of a person to you, even if it falls on an irregular surface where it looks distorted to someone else.) So from this observation we can conclude that the edge of the Earth is rounded.

Many shapes can cause a rounded shadow. However, if you observe multiple lunar eclipses, you will see that the Earth’s shadow is always round, and what’s more, it always has the same radius of curvature. And different lunar eclipses occur at any given location on Earth with the moon at different points in the sky, including sometimes when the moon is not in the sky (because the location is facing away from the moon). This means that different lunar eclipses occur when different parts of the Earth are facing the moon, which means that different parts of the Earth’s edge are casting the shadow edge on the moon. So from these observation, we can see that the shape of the shadow does not depend on the orientation of the Earth to the moon.

There is only one solid shape for which the shape of its shadow doesn’t depend on the object’s orientation. A sphere. So observations of lunar eclipses show that the Earth is a globe.

Addendum: A common rebuttal by Flat Earthers is that lunar eclipses are not caused by the Earth’s shadow, but by some other mechanism entirely – usually another celestial object getting between the sun and moon and blocking the light. But any such object is apparently the same colour as the sky, making it mysteriously otherwise completely undetectable, and does not have the simple elegance of explanation (and the supporting evidence from numerous other observations) of the moon moving around the Earth and entering its shadow.

Colour naming experiment

Firstly, sorry for the delay in getting a new proof written. I’ve been travelling, and then got sick on the flight home and was mostly incapacitated for two weeks. And I have deadlines for other stuff that then got in the way.

But one of those deadlines also involves science, and it’s pretty cool so I thought I’d share it with you. I do volunteer work with CSIRO’s STEM Professional in Schools program. As a professional scientist, I am partnered with a primary school and visit the school several times a year to talk to and engage the students with science topics. In past years I’ve mostly done presentations and Q&A sessions, but this year the school science coordinator suggested running a science club with some of the keenest science students from each year.

My Science Club is made of 13 students from years 2 to 6 (so ages 7 to 11). I’m running several experiments with them throughout the year. One of them is actually Eratosthenes’ method of measuring the size of the Earth, modified slightly. I’m getting the kids to measure the length of a vertical stick’s shadow every day at noon. At the end of the year I’ll help them plot the length versus day of the year, and we’ll fit a sine curve and extract the parameters to let us calculate the size of the Earth.

This Monday, I have another Science Club meeting, and I’ve been preparing a different experiment, on colour perception and naming. This is a cool topic that I’ve been interested in ever since I attended an imaging conference and saw some talks about the psychophysics and cultural psychology of colour perception. What I’ve done is to visit a local hardware store and raid their set of house paint sample brochures. Then I cut them up:

Cutting up paint brochures

I had way too many colours, many of which were very similar to others, so I selected a representative subset to try and span as much of the colour space as I could. Then I arranged them and used double sided tape to stick them into manila folders:

Sticking samples into folders

A couple of hours later, and I had 13 folders with identically laid out colour swatches inside:

Colour swatch folders

I used a marker to label all the swatches in each folder with a number. There are 35 swatches:

The 35 colour swatches

Now, here’s the experiment: On Monday in Science Club I’ll give each of the students one of the folders. I’ll also give them a potential list of colour names, with over 100 possible colour names on it:

List of colour names

Their task is to look at each colour, decide which name is the best name for it, and write the colour number on the sheet next to that name. Repeat for all 35 colours. So a lot of the names are going to be left unused. And I’ve included a few write-in slots for any cases where a student is positive that a certain colour really must be called “nasty bruise” or whatever. I’ve been careful to pick names that young children can relate to, and avoid weird things like “heliotrope” and “malachite” that they’ve probably never heard.

The science behind this experiment is that we’re all pretty good and consistent at naming very basic colours like red, and yellow, and blue, but when it comes to naming more subtle shades we are actually highly inconsistent. Is that particular shade of red: rose red, or raspberry, or cherry, or something else? Ask a lot of people and you’ll get a lot of different answers. There are classic studies showing this. (And yes, Randall Munroe of xkcd did a similar thing online a while back and published the results.)

There’s also a study showing that people are inconsistent with themselves, if given exactly the same task a few weeks later. Nearly everyone changes their mind on what certain shades should be called. So this is my experiment with my Science Club! I’m not going to tell the kids that we’ll be repeating this task later in the year. It’ll be interesting to see how closely they can reproduce their own results then, and also how closely their answers align with one another.

Basically, I’m doing something that happens with all good science. I’m replicating an experiment to see if I can reproduce the results. And now that I have this experiment ready to go, I’ll get on to writing up another proof that the Earth is a globe… hopefully within the next few days.

15. Trilateration

Trilateration is the method of locating points in space based on measuring the distances from known reference locations. It is used in surveying and navigation, similarly to the related method of triangulation, which technically uses the measurement of angles, not distances. For this entry we’re going to get practical and attempt to do some trilateration, using distances between some major cities in the world. To do this, I’ll need some equipment:

Equipment used

I acquired graph paper, a ruler, a tape measure, a pen, a pair of compasses, and a couple of large polystyrene balls.

I began my first scale drawing on a piece of graph paper. I’ve picked Auckland, New Zealand, as one of my cities of interest. Since nothing is on the paper yet, I can place Auckland wherever I want to. So I draw a cross indicating the position of Auckland and label it AKL (the city’s international airport code).

Auckland's position

For my second city, I’ve chosen Tokyo, Japan. According to a flight distance reference website, the travelling distance between Auckland and Tokyo, or more specifically between Auckland Airport and Tokyo’s Narita Airport, is 8806 kilometres. My graph paper has 2 mm squares, and (for reasons that will become clear in a minute) I’m using a scale of 86.1 km/mm. So I take a pair of compasses and set the distance from the metal point to the pen tip to be 102.3 mm as best I can. That’s 51 and a bit grid squares. I place the point in the centre of the AKL cross and mark a point on the paper 102.3 mm away with the pen tip. I enlarge the point to a cross and label it NRT (for Narita Airport). It doesn’t matter which direction I choose to place Tokyo from Auckland, because at this point there are no other constraints.

Tokyo's position

For my third city, I choose Los Angeles, USA. Los Angeles Airport, LAX, is 10467 km from Auckland, and 8773 km from Tokyo Narita. To locate LAX on my scale drawing, I first set my compasses with a distance of 10467 / 86.1 = 121.6 mm. With this distance setting, I draw an arc centred on AKL.

Los Angeles' position from Auckland

All of the points on this arc are the correct distance from Auckland to be Los Angeles. But we have another constraint – Los Angeles also has to be the correct distance from Tokyo. So I set my compasses to 8773 / 86.1 = 101.9 mm, and draw an arc centred at NRT.

Los Angeles' position nailed down

The intersection of these two arcs is the point that is both the correct scale distance from Auckland and Tokyo, so I label the intersection point LAX. So far, so good. We have three world cities with their relative positions accurately plotted to scale. Let’s add a fourth city! For the fourth city, I’ll choose something somewhere in the middle of the first three: Honolulu, USA. For starters, Honolulu is 7063 km from Auckland. So I draw an arc with radius 7063 / 86.1 = 82.0 mm centred on AKL.

Honolulu's position from Auckland

Honolulu is 6146 km from Tokyo. So I draw an arc with radius 6146 / 86.1 = 71.4 mm centred on NRT.

Honolulu's position from Auckland and Tokyo

Now in theory this is enough to give us the location of Honululu. It must be on both the arc centred at Auckland and on the arc centred at Tokyo – so it has to be at the intersection of those two arcs. But wait! We have more information than that. We also know that Honolulu is 4113 km from Los Angeles. So I draw an arc with radius 4113 / 86.1 = 47.8 mm centred on LAX.

Honolulu's position from Auckland, Tokyo, and Los Angeles

For the flight distances to be correct, Honolulu Airport (HNL) must be on all three arcs that I’ve drawn. But the arcs don’t all intersect at the same point. So where is Honolulu? According to the rules of geometry, anywhere we put it results in at least one of the distances being wrong. In the worst case, the the AKL-LAX intersection is 10 mm on the drawing from the NRT-LAX intersection, an error of 861 kilometres, which is 300 km longer than the entire chain of populated Hawaiian Islands from Niihau to Hawaii. Obviously a navigation error this large when trying to find Honolulu in the midst of the Pacific Ocean would be disastrous.

What’s gone wrong? Well, I’ve attempted to draw these distances to scale on a flat piece of paper. The error shows the distortion caused by trying to map the shape of the Earth onto a flat surface. The distances are all correct, but in reality they don’t lie in the same plane. So let’s try another approach. I’m going to map the distances onto a scale model of the Earth as a sphere.

To do this, I got a polystyrene sphere from an art supply shop. I measured the circumference using a tape measure to be 465 mm. Dividing the average circumference of the Earth by this gives me a scale of 86.1 km/mm (which is where I got the scale that I used for the drawing above). Now I just need to repeat the steps above, but plot the points and arcs on the surface of the sphere. But there’s one small wrinkle: flight distances are measured along the surface of the Earth, but the compasses step off the distance in a straight line, as measured through the Earth. To get the correct scale distance to set the compasses, we need to do a little geometry:

Geometry figure: surface distance versus straight line distance

The distance along the surface of the Earth is d, the distance through the Earth is x, and the radius of the Earth is r. In radians, the angle θ is d/r. Now according to the cosine rule of trigonometry:

x2 = r2 + r2 – 2r2 cos θ

x2 = 2r2(1 – cos(d/r))

So plugging in d and r we can find the distance x to set the compasses to (at the correct scale). Here’s a summary table:

Cities Distance (km) Scale distance (mm) Compasses distance (mm)
AKL-NRT 8806 102.3 94.3
AKL-LAX 10467 121.6 108.4
NRT-LAX 8773 102.0 94.0
AKL-HNL 7063 82.1 77.9
NRT-HNL 6146 71.4 68.6
LAX-HNL 4113 47.8 46.9

Using the distances in the Compasses column on my polystyrene sphere, and following the same steps as above for the graph paper, produced this:

Honolulu's position on a sphere

The arcs drawn with the correct scale distances of Honolulu from Auckland, Tokyo, and Los Angeles all intersect at exactly the same point on the surface of the sphere. We’ve found Honolulu!

So by experiment, trilateration of points on the Earth’s surface does not work if you use a flat surface to map the points. It only works if you use a sphere.

Addendum: I bought two spheres because I was prepared for the first attempt to be a little bit out due to any small inaccuracies or mistakes in my setting the correct compasses distances. But as it turned out I only needed the one. I was pleasantly surprised when it worked so well the first time.

14. Map projections

Cartography is the science and art of producing maps – most commonly of the Earth (although there are also maps of astronomical bodies and fictional worlds). The best known problem in cartography is that of representing the Earth on a flat map with minimal distortion.

If the Earth were itself flat, then this problem would not exist. A flat map would simply be a constant scale drawing of the flat Earth, and it woud be accurate and distortion-free at all points. But it is well known that such a map cannot be made. The reason, of course, is that the Earth is spherical, and the surface of a sphere cannot be projected onto a flat plane without some sort of distortion.

There are numerous different map projections, which render areas of the Earth onto a flat map with varying types and amounts of distortion. In all of these projections, some trade off must be made between the different goals of preservation of distances (i.e. a constant distance scale), preservation of directions (e.g. north is always up, east is always to the right), preservation of shapes (geographical regions look the same shape as they do when viewed from the air or a satellite), and preservation of areas (geographical regions of the same area appear the same area on the map). The familiar Mercator projection preserves directions at the expense of all the others, and is infamous for its large distortions of area between the polar and equatorial regions.

Mercator projection

Mercator projection map of Earth, showing gross area distortions. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The area distortion is apparent when you consider that Africa has an area of 30.4 million square kilometres, while North America, including Central American, the Caribbean islands, the northern Canadian islands, and Greenland, is only 24.7 million square kilometres. On a Mercator map, Greenland all by itself looks larger than Africa, but it is in reality less than a third the size of Australia.

There are projections which give a better impression of the relative areas, but these necessarily distort shapes and distances. The Gall-Peters projection also maps lines of latitude and longitude to straight lines like Mercator, but preserves areas.

Gall-Peters projection

Gall-Peters projection map of Earth, showing gross shape distortions. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Both of these projections have the disadvantage that distortion becomes extreme at the poles. In the Gall-Peters projection, the North and South Poles are mapped to horizontal lines spanning the width of the map, rather than to points. The Mercator projection cannot even show the poles at all, because the projection puts them at infinity.

A map specifically designed to compromise between all the various distortions is the Winkel tripel projection. This projection was adopted by the National Geographic Society as its standard world map projection in 1998 (replacing the Robinson projection, a similar compromise projection), and many textbooks and educational materials now use it.

Winkel tripel projection

Winkel tripel projection map of Earth, showing compromised distortions. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

In the Winkel tripel projection, the lines of latitude and longitude are both curved, indicating that directions and shapes are not preserved faithfully. Areas are also distorted somewhat – Greenland looks almost the same size as Australia, even though it is less than a third the area. But all of the different distortions are moderate compared to the more extreme distortions visible in some of these features in other projections.

The Hammer projection goes further in rectifying the distance distortion issues with the polar regions, by mapping the North and South Poles to single points, as they are on Earth. However, this distorts the shapes of areas near the poles and away from the central meridian even more.

Hammer projection

Hammer projection map of Earth, showing poles mapped to points, but large shape distortions. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

If you want to minimise distortions in a sort of T-shaped area encompassing, say, the Old World continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, then you can do a bit better by adopting the Bonne projection. This maps a chosen so-called “standard” parallel of latitude to a circular arc, which reduces distortion along that parallel (since in reality parallels of latitude are circles, not straight lines).

Bonne projection

Bonne projection map of Earth with standard parallel 45°N, showing poles mapped to points and small distortions in Africa, Europe, Asia, but large distortions in South America, Australia, Antarctica. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Minimising distortions along the straight central meridian and a parallel in the northern hemisphere naturally increases distortions in the southern hemisphere, making this a good choice for Old World maps, which it has been used for extensively, but pretty bad for South America and Oceania.

Oddly enough, we’re now not so far from the standard map advocated by most Flat Earthers. If you map all the parallels of latitude to complete circles (rather than partial circular arcs as in the Bonne projection), increasing in radius by a constant amount per degree of latitude, you end up with an azimuthal equidistant projection, centred on the North Pole.

Azimuthal equidistant projection

Azimuthal equidistant projection map of Earth centred at the North Pole. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The result is that the northern hemisphere is moderately distorted, but the distortion grows extreme in the south, and the South Pole is mapped to a large circle encircling the whole map. This map projection is good for showing directions relative to the central point (so a variant centred on Mecca is useful for Muslims who wish to know which direction to face during prayer). It’s not a good projection for much else though, because of the severe distance, shape, direction, and area distortions in the southern hemisphere. If you were plotting a trip from Australia to South America, it would be utterly useless.

If the Earth were in fact flat, then it would be possible—indeed trivial—to construct flat maps which accurately show the shapes and distances over large areas of the Earth’s surface at a constant scale. No such maps exist. And the fact that cartographers have struggled for centuries to make flat maps of the world, trading off various compromises with arguable degrees of success, is evidence that it’s not possible, and that the Earth is a globe.

Admin update: travelling 11-25 May

Sorry there hasn’t been a new post for a few days. I’ve been dealing with some urgent deadlines for stuff that needs to be done before I travel next week. I’m going to Portugal for 2 weeks, from 11-25 May. There won’t be any new posts while I’m away, but I hope to get one or two more done before I leave – after I deal with more urgent stuff this weekend.