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More on Brightness as a Function of Distance

The intensity or brightness of light as a function of the distance from the light source follows an inverse square relationship. Suppose you were to use a light meter to measure an initial intensity Ii, or brightness, a distance r from a light source. Suppose that some time later the brightness of the light is either greater or lesser; if the intensity diminished you would know that the source was moving away from you and if it became brighter you would know that the source was moving towards you (assuming the light source itself remained the same).

This relationship can be illustrated by the diagram below, which shows the apparent brightness of a source with luminosity L0 at distances r, 2r, 3r, etc. Notice that as the distance increases, the light must spread out over a larger surface and the surface brightness decreases in accordance with a "one over r squared" relationship. The decrease goes as r squared because the area over which the light is spread is proportional to the distance squared.

diagram of intensity over distances

If M31 is moving with respect to the Earth, you should be able to see a change in its apparent brightness. Measuring this change would allow you to calculate its speed.

Info Click here to see a mathematical derivation of the relationship between intensity and distance.
Info Click here for another example of a 1/R2 law.
Quiz Click here to quiz your knowledge of 1/r2 laws.
Return Click here to return to solving this problem with the light intensity vs. distance relationship.
Experiment Click here to return to the beginning and try another approach.

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This page last updated: Monday, 30-Jan-2006 12:11:59 EST