- Recent claims of flying over a rainbow debunked as a misunderstanding of physics.
- Rainbow formation relies on specific angles between sunlight, water droplets, and the observer.
- Photos capturing “flying over a rainbow” attributed to a window property called birefringence.
- Plastic in aircraft windows splits light, creating an interference pattern that mimics rainbow colors.
- Sunlight reflection from the ocean’s surface and atmospheric scattering further contribute to the illusion.
Recent reports of a passenger photographing a rainbow from an airplane window have spurred intrigue and speculation. Melissa Rensen, a traveler from London, Canada, captured these captivating images over the Caribbean Sea. However, a crucial misunderstanding lies at the heart of this phenomenon. While it appears as though the plane is soaring above a rainbow, this notion defies the laws of physics. Rainbows emerge when sunlight interacts with atmospheric water droplets, splitting into a spectrum of colors and forming a distinctive arc at an angle of approximately 42 degrees.
This celestial display is an optical illusion, contingent on the stability of the 42-degree angle between the sun, the droplet, and the observer. Consequently, flying over a rainbow is inherently impossible. Changes in these angles would cause the rainbow to either vanish or manifest in an entirely different location. Though there are rare scenarios where a rainbow may fleetingly appear beside or beneath an aircraft, the circumstances in Rensen’s photographs do not align with this exception.
The key to unraveling this optical mystery lies in the aircraft’s window itself, owing to a characteristic known as birefringence. This property in the window’s plastic material splits incoming light into two distinct rays, each dispersing colors in a unique manner. When these rays emerge from the window, they interact, generating the vividly colored bands witnessed in the photographs. This effect becomes particularly pronounced when a polarizing filter is applied to the camera. Additionally, the ocean’s surface plays a pivotal role, acting as a natural polarizing filter. Sunlight bouncing off the water becomes polarized, causing the rays of light to oscillate predominantly in one direction.
Furthermore, daylight itself is polarized due to scattering by Earth’s atmospheric molecules, with blue light exhibiting more effective scattering than red light, accounting for the blue hue of the sky. When all these factors harmonize, they produce the striking bands of color evident in the images. It is essential to clarify that what Rensen captured was not a rainbow, but a captivating play of light and optics orchestrated by the elements at play.
Author: Science & Astronomy
#1 The colourful shots (pictured) were taken by Melissa Rensen, 51, as she flew over the Caribbean Sea.
But Ms Rensen, from London in Ontario, Canada said she didn’t realise she’s captured the kaleidoscope of colours until she viewed the images later in the day
#3 A photographer has taken a rare aerial picture appearing to show a rainbow from his Cessna plane. Credit: Bav Media
#4 Rainbow View from Above, (rainbow effect on water caused by polarized glass on plane and camera), taken from inside the plane coming home from a vacation in Boracay Philippines
#5 767 Rainbow Takeoff
#7 Stunning picture shows plane flying into a rainbow
A rainbow forms when light is reflected and refracted in water droplets, or in other liquids or surfaces. Because they are formed by droplets above the ground, centred on a line from the sun to the viewer’s eye, this means they are visible from a distance. This means it is not possible to ‘fly through’ a rainbow