If you’re watching the Winter Olympics, you know that snow and ice are an integral part of the sports. But did you know that snow and ice need to be different for each sport? NASA scientist Peter Wasilewski’s studies of ice using polarized light create beautiful colored pictures of the snow and ice, and enable people to see if the snow and ice is "right" for each type of sport.
Wasilewski, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., uses polarized light to see the colors in the ice crystals that make up ice and snow. Light has wave-like properties, one of which is vibration. Ordinary white light vibrates in many directions, but a polarizing filter blocks all light except that which is vibrating in a single direction. For example, when light reflects off nonmetallic surfaces such as glass, water, or a road surface, the light is polarized, or just vibrating in one direction. Un-polarized light like the light emitted by the sun or a lamp in the classroom goes in all directions.
The colors and patterns in images produced using polarized light define the type of ice and snow being studied. A core from an ice rink that had been recently skated on would show multi-colored granules, like snow dust, created from the sharp blades of the skates cutting into the ice. Below that would be what appear to be vertical, cylindrical ice crystals. Those crystals extend down to the next layer on which lines and circles (used for hockey) are painted directly on the surface of the ice. Underneath that layer is another vertical layer of multi-colored crystals extending down to the painted white surface we all associate with ice rinks. If the surface of that quarter inch of ice were not painted white, the ice would appear dark to the viewing audience. Finally, below that is the thin layer of ice created from water sprays that seal the concrete slab.
Rob Gutro | EurekAlert!
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