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Night Sky News: Ghostly Light Cone on the Rise

Some celestial wonders visible in the night sky are more elusive than others, but they’re no less fascinating to hunt down and observe.

One of the most mysterious of these astronomical events is the ghostly glow called the zodiacal light.

On display in the Northern Hemisphere for the next two weeks, this phenomenon will be visible above the western horizon as a faint cone of light that extends halfway up the sky for about an hour after local sunset.

—Picture courtesy ESO

Ancient Romans thought this spooky haze was due to far-off campfires below the horizon, while the ancient Greeks said that it must be caused by distant volcanic eruptions.

In the mid-16th century some speculated that the zodiacal light was the outstretched atmosphere of our sun.

Today we know that the zodiacal light is actually caused by sunlight scattering off countless grains of microscopic interplanetary dust spread out to beyond the orbit of Mars.

The vast majority of this dust is concentrated within the plane of the inner solar system near the sun, making the grains’ combined light appear along the ecliptic, the path in the sky each planet follows.

Watch a video podcast describing the science behind the zodiacal light.

This faint light show is best seen during early spring and autumn, when the ecliptic line is nearly perpendicular to the horizon, as seen from the North Hemisphere.

Visible from the tropics to mid-latitudes, the zodiacal light is a special sight reserved for really dark rural locations far from the blinding light pollution of cities and towns.

Your best bet to catch the zodiacal light will be on the upcoming moonless nights, looking toward the western sky after dusk. It’s best to drive out to a dark site by sunset with a comfortable camping chair, blankets … and maybe some hot chocolate!

Leave all white lights turned off to let your eyes adjust to the approaching darkness as sunset fades to dusk, which takes about an hour. Without any binoculars or telescopes, look for a pyramid of diffuse light.

Planet buffs should also take note that Mercury is putting on its best show now, as the planet has reached what’s called its greatest elongation—when it moves the farthest away from the sun in our evening sky.

Mercury is still a bit tricky to track down in the first half hour after sunset. Look for a faint star shining low in the western horizon within the first hour after local sunset. Sweeping the sky with binoculars will help pinpoint the planet.

—Illustration courtesy Starry Night Software

Better hurry though, because by next week the little world will start sinking and fading fast as it approaches the sun once more.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.

Comments

  1. hamed
    iran
    April 25, 2012, 1:26 pm

    very very very interesing and beautiful

  2. Sumy Thomas
    India
    April 10, 2012, 2:02 am

    Thank you for the article. This is really informative and also, amazing to see the pictures..I wish to be there and take a snap of this.

  3. Shirley pullen
    Ontario, canada southern part
    March 15, 2012, 9:45 am

    I just found this on my computer that I just bought and I am thrilled at what I just read I am always looking in the sky will be watching the west I live in the country.

  4. Gerard B. Noprada
    Philippines
    January 15, 2012, 2:34 am

    How wonderful is that picture!

  5. AMARNATH REDDY
    hyderabad
    November 9, 2011, 11:23 pm

    EXCELLENT THOUGHT

  6. javad
    Iran
    September 24, 2011, 5:46 am

    Thank you for this essay & for your good photos. They were extremely appealing .I realy propel me in my scholarships.

  7. marszym11
    Poland
    September 8, 2011, 10:09 pm

    Very interesting and beautiful.

  8. yukiko
    japan
    August 29, 2011, 8:04 am

    so beautiful..
    I hope I can look it with my own eyes..^^

  9. Vanessa V
    Kentucky, U.S.
    August 18, 2011, 5:17 pm

    This is really cool, and very helpful for a school project that I am doing! ^_^ Thank you so much for writing this.

  10. Majid
    IRAN
    August 15, 2011, 11:50 am

    Thanks, for your fabulous pictures and the article.
    it cheers me up.

  11. Shekhar
    Pune.maharastra
    May 13, 2011, 1:35 am

    Amazing photo. I like it.

  12. saochan
    indonesia
    May 11, 2011, 10:24 pm

    so beautiful………….

  13. Crystal
    Lakewood Colorado
    May 9, 2011, 2:29 pm

    Great Blog and wonderful pictures. Thank you for sharing!

  14. RAYA
    Indonesia
    May 5, 2011, 12:37 am

    Foto yang cantik.

  15. REKHA
    INDIA
    May 2, 2011, 2:12 pm

    SO BEAUTIFUL THIS PHOTO IS VERY NICE AND LIGHTING PICTURE

  16. SHARDA
    india
    May 2, 2011, 2:06 pm

    SO GOOD AND AMAZING PHOTO

  17. varsha
    india
    May 2, 2011, 2:02 pm

    nice picture , I LIKE THIS PHOTO

  18. Renee Ertel
    Buffalo N,Y
    April 30, 2011, 2:34 am

    what a amazing site so omonis and unexpected
    I wish could have photographed such a site!

  19. jose johnny
    costa rica
    April 23, 2011, 1:40 am

    es hermoso sea lo q sea

  20. Ruto Kipkulei
    Nairobi, Kenya
    April 19, 2011, 10:25 am

    That is beautiful. Wish I had seen this article at the time. I’d have kept my eyes open.

  21. cel
    Philippines, Manila.
    April 5, 2011, 1:03 am

    Amazing photo. Lovely to see but mysterious. Thank you for sharing this.

  22. angel
    houstown texas
    April 1, 2011, 10:19 am

    i think that space is cool to me.

  23. OzRose
    Allanson. Western Australia
    April 1, 2011, 3:26 am

    Mine’s more of a question than a comment.
    Why will this only be visible from the northern hemisphere ? Does something similar happen south of the equator at a different time of the year ?

    cheers.

    • Victoria Jaggard
      April 1, 2011, 10:50 am

      @OzRose: The post’s author, Andrew Fazekas, tells me the following: “Folks in the Southern Hemisphere do get to see the light cone of the zodiacal lights too, but for them the best time is morning twilight – about an hour before sunrise – above the eastern horizon.”

  24. daniel
    mexico
    March 31, 2011, 10:05 pm

    hermoso paisaje felicidades a fotograf@

  25. Prima
    Indonesia
    March 31, 2011, 7:34 pm

    I like the pictures. So beautiful…^^

  26. AROB
    March 31, 2011, 12:25 am

    NICE

  27. Andrew Kuter
    Rochester, NY
    March 30, 2011, 11:38 am

    Awesome article.
    Leaving Sunday 4/3/11 for eastern Carribean cruise. hope i can get some good images of mars and the light cone. keep you posted.

  28. Andrew Kuter
    Rochester, NY
    March 30, 2011, 11:37 am

    Awesome article.
    Leaving Sunday 4/3/11

  29. weston
    ely nv
    March 29, 2011, 1:18 pm

    wonderful site