Science Questions

Are solar photons making Earth more massive?

Wed, 4th Sep 2013

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John Scott asked:

What happens to the photons of light that penetrate the oceans, in fact what happens to the photons of light that hit the earth?


If photons have mass, then is the earth increasing in mass from these photons from the sun and is the sun losing mass from expelling the photons?


If this is the case the Earth's gravity would be getting greater and the Sun's gravity will be reducing.


John Scott.



Dominic - Yes and I essentially think they do because you're probably familiar the sunwith Einsteinís really famous equation e=mc2. This was the iconic equation of relativity and what that's saying is that energy has some mass associated with it. Itís a very tiny mass, but when you're looking at really large amounts of energy like the power that the sun is delivering to the earth every day then that starts to become quite an appreciable mass. I actually sat down half an hour ago and was doing this calculation. I think itís about 7 kg of energy that the sun delivers to the Earth every second. But if you're then asking, is the energy of the Earth increasing is a result of that, well, the Earth's energy is not actually increasing as a result of the radiation from the sun. Because if it was, it would be getting hotter and we know that the Earthís climate has been fairly steady for millions of years. So, what that means is that the Earth is radiating to space, just about the same amounts of energy that itís receiving every day from the sun. Itís in this thermal balance.

Dave - Though there have been a couple of NASA missions recently which have been actually attempting to measure that because if global warming is happening and the Earth is warming up, then the Earth should be re-emitting less energy than itís absorbing. And they reckon it was less than a Watt per square metre is disappearing somewhere into the Earth. So, some of that energy should be increasing the mass of the Earth very slightly by just heating it up.


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There's plenty of things that make the earth change its mass. solar photons heat the earh up. The heat is reradiated back into space as infrared radiation. Pmb, Fri, 12th Jul 2013

Yes, but the Earth is also warming up a bit, so the photons are increasing the mass of the Earth. This is a relatively small difference, however, up against the loss of hydrogen into space from the outer atmosphere.

We calculated the Earth's mass balance sheet last year for More or Less:

And discussed the topic from a different standpoint on this forum, here:

Chris chris, Fri, 12th Jul 2013

Photons certainly deliver momentum, which has dimensions of mass x velocity, but as far as we know the mass of a photon is zero.

However all sorts of other stuff from electrons to car-size chunks of iron, is flying towards us from the sun and the rest of the cosmos.

Whilst there is no shortage of hydrogen on the planet, there is a serious concern about the loss of helium. We've only known about the stuff for around 100 years but it is enormously important in industry and may not be around in affordable quantities for the next century. alancalverd, Fri, 12th Jul 2013

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