Why is the sky blue?
Sunlight is made up of all the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. The gas molecules in the atmosphere interact with the sunlight before the light reaches our eyes.
The gas molecules in the atmosphere scatter the higher-energy (high frequency) blue portion of the sunlight more than they scatter the lower-energy red portion of the sunlight (this is called Rayleigh scattering, named for the physicist Lord John Rayleigh). The Sun appears reddish-yellow and the sky surrounding the Sun is colored by the scattered blue waves.
When the Sun is lower in the horizon (near sunrise or sunset), the sunlight must travel through a greater thickness of atmosphere than it does when it is overhead, and even more light is scattered (not just blue, but also green, yellow, and orange) before the light reaches your eyes. This makes the sun look much redder.
Caution: Never stare directly at the Sun.
COLORS OF LIGHT
Visible light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes can see. Light from the sun or a light bulb may look white, but it is actually a combination of many colors. We can see the different colors of the spectrum by splitting the light with a prism. The spectrum is also visible when you see a rainbow in the sky.
The colors blend continuously into one another. At one end of the spectrum are the reds and oranges. These gradually shade into yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The colors have different wavelengths, frequencies, and energies. Violet has the shortest wavelength in the visible spectrum. That means it has the highest frequency and energy. Red has the longest wavelength, and lowest frequency and energy.
LIGHT IN THE AIR
Light travels through space in a straight line as long as nothing disturbs it. As light moves through the atmosphere, it continues to go straight until it bumps into a bit of dust or a gas molecule. Then what happens to the light depends on its wave length and the size of the thing it hits.
Dust particles and water droplets are much larger than the wavelength of visible light. When light hits these large particles, it gets reflected, or bounced off, in different directions. The different colors of light are all reflected by the particle in the same way. The reflected light appears white because it still contains all of the same colors.
Gas molecules are smaller than the wavelength of visible light. If light bumps into them, it acts differently. When light hits a gas molecule, some of it may get absorbed. After awhile, the molecule radiates (releases, or gives off) the light in a different direction. The color that is radiated is the same color that was absorbed.
The color that is radiated is the same color that was absorbed. The different colors of light are affected differently. All of the colors can be absorbed. But the higher frequencies (blues) are absorbed more often than the lower frequencies (reds).
This process is called Rayleigh scattering. (It is named after Lord John Rayleigh, an English physicist, who first described it in the 1870's.)
WHY IS THE SKY BLUE?
The blue color of the sky is due to Rayleigh scattering. As light moves through the atmosphere, most of the longer wavelengths pass straight through. Little of the red, orange and yellow light is affected by the air.
However, much of the shorter wavelength light is absorbed by the gas molecules. The absorbed blue light is then radiated in different directions. It gets scattered all around the sky. Whichever direction you look, some of this scattered blue light reaches you. Since you see the blue light from everywhere overhead, the sky looks blue.
As you look closer to the horizon, the sky appears much paler in color. To reach you, the scattered blue light must pass through more air. Some of it gets scattered away again in other directions. Less blue light reaches your eyes. The color of the sky near the horizon appears paler or white.