Roy Spencer: Yes, Virginia, the “Vacuum” of Space Does have a “Temperature”

Usually, I refrain from addressing silly scientific claims. But since some people seem determined to go to any extent to ‘disprove’ greenhouse gas theory, in this instance I am going against my better judgment to answer a particularly crazy article entitled, “Roy Spencer’s Fatal Error: Believing the Vacuum of Space Has a Temperature“.

I can’t tell whether John O’Sullivan really believes what he has written there. While I will assume he does, it still feels like I’m being challenged by a supermarket tabloid to offer proof that Elvis was not abducted by space aliens.

But I digress. The basic issue is that the radiative energy budget of the Earth involves energy GAIN from the sun (primarily at visible wavelengths, less at infrared [IR] wavelengths), and then energy LOSS to the ‘cold’ depths of outer space, which is mostly in the IR.

It is usually assumed in radiative energy budget calculations of the Earth that there is no IR emission toward the Earth from outer space, but this is not strictly true. Space emits radiation like a blackbody whose temperature is 2.7 K, and a portion of this emission is indeed in the infrared, as was verified by the COBE satellite experiment:

So yes, Virginia, outer space does have a temperature, and it is a very cold one. But even if that temperature was 0 K (in which case one might metaphysically ask whether zero absolute temperature actually means no temperature), the practical result would be the same: the thermal radiation emitted by a colder object CAN influence the energy budget, and therefore the temperature, of a warmer object.

In the case of the greenhouse effect, downwelling infrared sky radiation, even though it is usually less intense than the upwelling radiation from the ground, keeps the ground from cooling much faster at night than if the atmosphere was not there.

No laws of thermodynamics are broken, because the net flow of radiation is still from the warmer object to the cooler object, despite the fact that the cooler object (the atmosphere) keeps the warmer object (the ground) warmer than if the atmosphere was not there. That’s the (so-called) greenhouse effect.

You can perform an experiment yourself, with an inexpensive handheld IR thermometer (which is really a radiometer) and (for example) a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer. Point the IR thermometer, which will be close to room temperature, at the inside of the freezer (say at 0 deg. F), and the temperature of the freezer viewing side of the thermopile within the thermometer will drop, due to IR energy loss from the thermopile toward the freezer. Circuitry measures the rate of temperature drop and calculates the temperature of the object you are viewing (it also assumes an IR emissivity, usually close to 1.0).

But if you then point the IR thermometer at the inside of the refrigerator (say at 40 deg. F), then the temperature of the refrigerator-viewing side of the thermopile will rise, even though the refrigerator temperature is colder than the handheld thermometer. So, yes, Virginia, cold objects (the refrigerator) can make warmer objects (the thermopile in the IR thermometer) even warmer still!

If the Sky Dragon Slayers want to keep claiming otherwise, then fine. Maybe someday they will receive a Nobel Prize.

And maybe someday Elvis will return from space with a great new weight loss product.

Roy Spencer

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12 responses to “Roy Spencer: Yes, Virginia, the “Vacuum” of Space Does have a “Temperature”

  1. Thank-you, Roy, for the explanation. How do we get this out to the grade-school kids the Warmists are brain-washing as I type?

  2. hmmm desert at night, sure gets cold quickly, that greenhouse effect sure is effective.

    • Yes it does, mainly due to low humidity (water vapor is by far the major greenhouse gas). Still, could be worse – there could be no CO2 to help slow the cooling even by that little bit. ;)

  3. William Nuesslein

    The problem is that there is no classical heat flow from a warm body to a cool environment at the boundary of space. Classical heat flow is based on the relatively faster moving molecules of a warm body transferring kinetic energy to relatively slower moving molecules in the cooler environment. Hot things are quelched in water for example. Mr. Sullivan’s point, inartfully stated, is that there is no substance in space to absorb kinetic energy. Objects in space cool through black box radiation as in Mr. Spencer’s explanation.

  4. Thanks for thoroughly enjoyable explanation of your position. Your skills as a scientist are not overshadowed by your biting wit. That’s funny stuff! I just love it when the climate hysterics are dismissed in the manner that Dr. Spencer used. The self important can’t stand ridicule.

  5. BUT – surely the “space” around the Earth cannot possibly be considered as cold – any object in this locality is “bathed” by powerful Solar radiation which we know can heat planetary surfaces to over 394 K – the only cold place in near Earth space is in the “shadow” of another body such as a planet.

    So Roy Spencer is incorrect in that space has a temperature – it has no charateristic temperature because it is subject to various radiative fluxes – no one can argue the “temperature” of space is any value other than the radiation flux at a given location.

    And we know that the Earth’s surfaces under the noon day sun at the tropics never approach the temperatures the Solar radiation is capable of producing – evidence for this claim is the temperature of the Moon during the day – so Earth’s atmosphere must be acting to reduce the heating effect at the surface.

    Dr Spencer claims – “In the case of the greenhouse effect, downwelling infrared sky radiation, even though it is usually less intense than the upwelling radiation from the ground, keeps the ground from cooling much faster at night than if the atmosphere was not there.”

    If this is true then the period of rotation of a planet must also be a significant factor in cooling yet Dr Spencer categorically rejected this proposition previously.

  6. Dr Spencer really should think before he shoots his mouth off as should all the rest who claim space is cold. Without critical thought he has parroted some learnt information.

    Now I have no evidence one way or the other and I fully accept the low residual radiation of deep space BUT how do the proponents of this nonsense – space is cold – explain other inconvenient truths ?

    Voyager spent years travelling through parts of the solar System where the radiation is extremely low

    – Saturn for example where NASA calculate a “blackbody” temperature of 81.1 K or minus 192 degrees C.

    The electronics would have stopped working long before the thing got to Mars if space was cold as claimed.

    They certainly could not have afforded the energy necessary to keep the damn thing warm and this would have resulted in an increase in cooling as hot things cool at a quicker rate.

    Surely this is empirical evidence that beyond doubt that space has no temperature ?

    A vacuum is the greatest inhibitor to energy transmission known including by radiation.

    Space is cold – bah humbug !!!

    • Rosco,

      I think you are being a bit facetious. Yes, as space is not a perfect vacuum, it does have a temperature. However, the temperature is meaningless because the density is so low that conduction and convection are both negligible.

    • …BUT how do the proponents of this nonsense – space is cold – explain other inconvenient truths ? … The electronics would have stopped working long before the thing got to Mars if space was cold as claimed.

      As this article http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/voyager20120117.html shows:
      1) Space IS cold, else there would be no need for heaters which take up space/weight/power/money on such spacecraft. Instruments on the Voyager spacecraft have shown this, not to mention every other deep-space craft we’ve sent out.
      2) Obviously, they WERE able to afford the power expediture, and for decades at that.
      3) All instrumentation does not necessarily freeze into non-functionality the instant those heaters are turned off.

      A vacuum is the greatest inhibitor to energy transmission known including by radiation.

      4) Which must be why we’re given lead-filled blankets, instead of vacuum filled blankets, when we go to get X-rays taken?

      Way to be wrong on all of your assertions at once. Color me impressed.

      • Great list of red herrings you give there.

        How long do you think Voyager would continue to function if dumped in liquid nitrogen at ~ 77 K versus a few K of deep space.

        Voyager has more than electronics.

        Meant to say Jupiter or Saturn not Mars.

        Lead use in X-Ray protection doesn’t disprove anything.

        Way to be a smart arse – Colour me unimpressed !

  7. All I am saying is that vacuum space cannot be said to have properties that do not apply – obviously in the absence of a power source anything will ultimately radiate its internal energy away in deep space – and the fact that Voyager lasted so long demonstrates that radiative loss of heat to space is a slow process – the batteries and solar collectors would not supply large current – hence large heating capacity.

    Saying space is cold is deceptive however – the implication deliberately used to further the confusion and climate alarmism.

    The temperature profile of the Moon demonstrates that vacuum space is an effective insulator with temperature losses of the order of a degree per hour – from lunar noon at 390 K to lunar midnight at 100 K in about 354 Earth hours.

    I can put water at close to boiling point in my freezer and have ice in 8 – 10 hours at no more than minus 15 C in the freezer compartment – at the Moon’s rate of cooling I’d have drunk the scotch neat.

    Water has a specific heat that is about 4 times that of the lunar regolith.

    I strongly object to the misuse of science by simplistic claims such as “space is cold” to further an agenda – that as space is so cold greenhouse gases trap heat and keep us toasty warm unless we’re stupid enough to make too many – then look out !

    Clearly the space at Earth’s proximity to the Sun isn’t “cold” – 1368 W /sq m – else why do astronauts wear shiny white spacesuits during EVA – if freezing was a realistic prospect surely they’d wear black ones ?

    Clearly the rate of cooling observed on the Moon clearly demonstrates that the Earth could never approach the cold temperatures experienced there unless we slammed on the barkes, stopped our rapid rotation about the axis and baked one side whilst allowing the other to freeze.

    Climate alarmists claim the Moon is proof of the “greenhouse gas effect” theory but ignore the real truth that the Moon takes a damn long time to cool and that cooling rates observed on Earth are much more rapid.

    Climate science seems to consider that time plays no role in “cooling” else thay would state the obvious – that the lunar “night” is about 354 Earth hours long.

    So a point on the the Earth is warmer than the Moon on average because of “greenhouse gases” but definitely NOT because it is subjected to a relatively short night time shielded from the Solar radiation – I cannot believe climate scientists can dismiss period of rotation as immaterial against actual evidence !

    To consider that vacuum space in the orbital path of Earth around the Sun has a temperature of a few K is extreme junk science no matter how you care to state it – it is nonsense and I cannot believe that people with academic qualifications continue to spread this misinformation.

    The temperature of any object in space will be determined by the radiation in that locality and as such space has NO characteristic temperature – it has various quantities of radiation.

  8. I make some foolish errors as everyone does – I usually don’t insult people for mistakes but I cannot resist egotistical smartarses.

    A vacuum is still the “best” insulator known to man for thermal energy as far as I can ascertain – true lead is better for x-rays but lead is also a great conductor of thermal energy.

    This just proves radiation of different types have different sets of properties.

    But – “So, yes, Virginia, cold objects (the refrigerator) can make warmer objects (the thermopile in the IR thermometer) even warmer still!” is one of the silliest statements I have ever heard – right up there with the generalisation that space is “cold” – space has no uniform properties !

    The argument that the refrigerator heats the thermopile in the IR thermomemter is CRAP – it completely IGNORES THE ENERGY INPUT from the battery or other electricity supply of the measuring device.

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