[Article 4489]Seeing the Light

The Zodiacal Light

For the past few nights, we’ve had clear weather here AND the chance to see flyovers of the International Space Station. For a couple of evenings now we’ve stepped out and watched as the astronauts flew over, and then happened to notice a faint sort of cone-shaped band of light in the west, with Jupiter embedded in the middle of it.

Here’s what it looked like. The picture below is with annotations to help you get your bearings in the sky.

The cone of the zodiacal light, Jupiter embedded within, and the western horizon on Feb. 24, 2011. This was taken about an hour after sunset, so there was still some skyglow, plus the glow of ground lighting on nearby clouds. Copyright 2011 Loch Ness Productions. Click to embiggen.

What you’re looking at is sunlight scattered by dust in the zodiacal cloud — that is, a thin, rather disk-shaped cloud of dust that surrounds the Sun. It is thought that this dust comes from fragmentation of so-called “Jupiter Family Comets” — that is, comets that approach Jupiter in their orbits and take less than 20 years to go once around the Sun.

As they travel through interplanetary space, comets release very fine particles of dust that get scattered out along the path. These are thought to create that cloud. The best time to see the effect of sunlight on these dust particles is when the zodiac (that is, the plane of the ecliptic through which the planets move) is at a steep angle to the horizon.  I think it’s rather neat to know that cone-shaped glow we have been seeing is the collective glow of sunlit dust particles.

If you want to try and see the zodiacal light from your location (and you have a clear view to the west after sunset), here’s an annotated version of the image above for reference.  It may look brighter than what we saw, or it could be faint. The important thing is to look after sunset or before sunrise (if you happen to be up), since at those times, the Sun will be blocked by Earth, but its light can be seen glinting off the dust.  Happy dust-chasing!

Zodiacal light, Jupiter, and the western horizon, with annotations. Click to embiggen.
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2 Responses to [Article 4489]Seeing the Light

  1. I enjoyed this article very much. Thanks for sharing your portion of the night sky and the unique event you chanced. Your photos are wonderful. We have been cloudy the last couple of nights and it was good to see those beautiful stars in your photos and the zodiacal light!

    My husband and I see the ISS in the summer (north Idaho, USA). We have satellite sighting contest, sometimes the neighbors join in, it’s a real backs woods geek fest! The ISS is one our favorites to track. One night we were lucky enough to see one of the shuttles chasing after the ISS for docking! Soon that particular event, orbiters chasing the ISS, will never be available of us to see again. It has been a good era.

    I like your website! Keep up the good work.
    From a fellow stargazer,
    Lucy

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