OTD in Space – Nov. 21: Astronomer (Accidentally) Discovers Speed of Light

21st November 2018

On November 21, 1676, the Danish astronomer Ole Rømer discovered the speed of light. Before Rømer figured it out, scientists thought that light travels instantaneously, or infinitely fast. Rømer disproved this almost by accident when he was studying Jupiter’s moon Io. He was trying to figure out how long it takes Io to orbit Jupiter in hopes of using it as a cosmic clock. He watched Io disappear behind Jupiter and reappear on the other side. He did this over and over every 42 hours for years. To his surprise, the timing of the eclipses was not consistent. When Earth was closest to Jupiter, the eclipses happened 11 minutes early. Likewise, when the two planets were farthest away, the eclipses were 11 minutes behind schedule. Rømer figured out the pattern and made an accurate prediction for Io’s eclipse on November 9, 1676. Then on Nov. 21, he took his findings to the Royal Academy of Sciences and explained that a finite speed of light must be responsible.