Thompson, Laird A. Department of Astronomy, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Illinois, Champaign, Illinois.
- Unaided-eye observations
- Telescope observations
- Radio sources
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A phenomenon by which light from the stars, as it passes through fluctuations in the Earth's atmosphere, is rapidly modulated and redirected to make the starlight appear to flicker. Although it is familiar to those who have looked with the unaided eye at the night sky, the twinkling phenomenon affects all wavelengths that manage to penetrate the Earth's atmosphere, from the visible to the radio wavelengths. At visible wavelengths, atmospheric fluctuations are caused predominantly by temperature irregularities along the line of sight. Minor contributions are made by irregularities in atmospheric density and in water vapor content. All such irregularities introduce slight changes in the index of refraction of air, and these changes affect light waves in two ways: they modulate the intensity of the light, and they deflect the light waves in one direction and then another. An analogous phenomenon is often observed when light grazes across the surface of a hot highway: light is bent and distorted by pockets of hot air rising over the pavement's surface. At radio wavelengths, electron density irregularities in the ionosphere modulate and redirect radio waves. See also: Refraction of waves
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