Happy Equinox! – A Perfect Time to See the Zodiacal Light

Welcome to the first day of spring! If you have a clear night between now and April 1, celebrate the new season with a pilgrimage to the countryside to ponder the eerie glow of the zodiacal light. Look for a large, diffuse, tapering cone of light poking up from the western horizon between 90 minutes and two hours after sunset. While the zodiacal light appears only as bright as the Milky Way,  you’re actually looking at the second brightest object in the night sky. No kidding.  If you could crunch it all into a little ball, it would shine at magnitude -8.5, far brighter than Venus and bested only by the full moon.  

The zodiacal (Zo-DIE-uh-cull) light is centered on the plane of the solar system called the ecliptic. On late March nights, you can trace it from near the western horizon more than 45 degrees (halfway up the sky). Stellarium
The zodiacal (Zo-DIE-uh-cull) light is centered on the plane of the solar system called the ecliptic. This is the same band of sky where you’ll find the planets and zodiac constellations, hence the name. On late March nights, you can trace it from near the western horizon more than 45 degrees (halfway up the sky). Created with Stellarium

Sunlight reflecting off countless dust particles shed by comets and spawned by asteroid collisions creates the luminous cone of light. First time observers might think they’re looking at skyglow from light pollution but the tapering shape and distinctive tilt mark this glow as interplanetary dust.

This image of coronal and zodiacal light (CZL) was taken by the Clementine spacecraft, when the sun was behind the moon. The white area on the edge of the moon is the CZL, and the bright is Venus. (Credit: NASA)
Photo of coronal and zodiacal light taken by the Clementine spacecraft when the sun was hidden by the moon. At right is Venus. Clementine measured the brightness of the light to arrive at an integrated magnitude of -8.5. It also estimated dust particle sizes and origin. Credit: NASA

Like the planets, the dust resides in the plane of the solar system. In spring, that plane (called the ecliptic) tilts steeply up from the western horizon after sunset, “lifting” the chubby thumb of light high enough to clear the horizon haze and stand out against a dark sky for northern hemisphere observers.  In October and November the ecliptic is once again tilted upright, but this time before dawn. While the zodiacal light is present year-round, it’s usually tipped at a shallow angle and camouflaged by horizon haze. No so for skywatchers in tropical and equatorial latitudes. There the ecliptic is tilted steeply all year long, and the light can be seen anytime there’s no moon in the sky.

The combined glow of dust particles in the plane of the solar system reaching from the sun's vicinity to beyond Mars is responsible for creating the zodiacal light. Planets are shown as colored disks. Illustration: Bob King
The combined glow of dust particles in the plane of the solar system reaching from the sun’s vicinity out to at least Jupiter is responsible for creating the zodiacal light. Dust closest to the sun glow more brightly, the reason the bottom of the zodiacal light cone is brighter than the tip. Planets are shown as colored disks. Illustration: Bob King

Now through April 1 and again from April 17-30 are the best nights for viewing because the moon will be absent from the sky. The cone is widest near the western horizon and narrows as you direct your gaze upward and to the left. At its apex, where it touches the V-shape Hyades star cluster, it continues into the even fainter zodiacal band and gegenschein, but more about that in a moment. Sweep your gaze in broad strokes back and forth across the western sky to help you discern the Z-light’s distinctive conical shape. And be sure to look for something HUGE. This thing is a monster – indeed, one of the largest entities in the solar system.

Scanning electron microscope photo of an interplanetary dust particle collected by a high-altitude plane. It measures about 8 microns across or a little less than twice the size of a human red blood cell. Scientists recently discovered that dust particles can act as tiny factories to built water molecules. Credit: Donald Brownlee and Elmar Jessberger
Scanning electron microscope photo of an interplanetary dust particle collected by a high-altitude plane. It measures about 8 microns across or a little less than twice the size of a human red blood cell. Scientists recently discovered that dust particles can act as tiny factories to built water molecules. Credit: Donald Brownlee and Elmar Jessberger

Observers fortunate enough to live under or with access truly dark skies can trace the zodiacal light all the way across the sky as the zodiacal band.

Midway along its length, 180 degrees opposite the sun, a slightly brighter circular patch called the gegenschein (German for ‘counter glow’) embedded in the band.

Dust particles there get an extra brightness boost because they face the sun square on, much like the moon does when full. While I usually see only a section of the zodiacal band from my dark observing site, the gegenschein is often visible as a diffuse, hazy patch of light about 6 degree across a little brighter than the sky background.

Incredible 360-degree-wide view of morning and evening zodiacal light cones (far left and right), the fainter zodiacal band and the brighter spot of gegenschein. Click to enlarge. Credit: Miloslav Druckmuller and Shadia Habbal
Incredible 360-degree-wide view of morning and evening zodiacal light cones (far left and right), the fainter zodiacal band and the brighter spot of gegenschein (center) and the Milky Way photographed from Mauna Kea. Click to enlarge. Credit: Miloslav Druckmuller and Shadia Habbal

Dutch astronomer H. C. van de Hulst determined that the dust particles responsible for the zodiacal light and its cousins the zodiacal band and gegenschein are about 0.04 inch (1 mm) in diameter and separated, on average, by about 5 miles (8 km).

The gegenschein, an oval shaped brighter spot within the faint zodiacal band, is easiest to when due south and highest in the sky at local midnight (1 a.m. Daylight Saving Time). Currently it's in northern Virgo. Since the 'counter glow' will always be opposite the sun, it will slide down closer to Spica in April. Created with Stellarium
The gegenschein, an oval shaped brighter spot within the faint zodiacal band, is easiest to when due south and highest in the sky at local midnight (1 a.m. Daylight Saving Time). Currently it’s in northern Virgo. Since the ‘counter glow’ will always be opposite the sun, it will slide down closer to Spica in April. Created with Stellarium

The particles form a low density, lens-shaped cloud of dust that’s thickest within the plane of the solar system but in reality covers the entire sky but ever so thinly. Sunlight absorbed by the particles is re-emitted as invisible infrared (heat) radiation. This re-radiation robs the dust of energy, causing the particles to spiral slowly into the sun. Fresh dust from the vaporization of cometary ices as well as collisions of asteroids replenishes the cloud.

Zodiacal light cones in the fall morning sky (left) and in late March. Both times of year, we see the plane of the solar system tipped at high angle in the sky. Credit: Bob King
Zodiacal light cones in the fall morning sky (left) and in late March. Both times of year we see the plane of the solar system tipped at a high angle in the sky. Credit: Bob King

According to a study by Joseph Hahn and colleagues of the Clementine Mission data, comet dust accounts for the majority of the zodiacal dust within 1 a.u. (93 million miles) of the sun; a mix of asteroidal and comet dust makes up the remainder.

Stepping out on a spring evening to look at the zodiacal light, we can appreciate how small things can come together to create something grand.

Oct. 7, 1959 – Our First Look at the Far Side of the Moon

For millennia, human eyes have seen only one face of the moon. Put a dude from the Iron Age in a time machine and whisk him to 2013 and he’d see the same pattern of light lunar highlands punctuated by dark grey spots you see. Night after night after night.

Telephoto view of the far side with Mare Smythii (Sea of Smyth) at left and bright crater Giordano Bruno at center. Credit: Roscosmos
Telephoto view of the far side with Mare Smythii (Sea of Smyth) at left and bright crater Giordano Bruno at center. Credit: Roscosmos

That all changed 54 years ago today when the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 probe opened its camera shutter and snapped the first pictures of the lunar far side. Though blurry and banded with electronic noise, everyone who saw them sat up in surprise. The backside barely resembled the front. It lacked in the familiar lunar maria, the dark spots that we instinctively patch together to form the face of the “man in the moon”.

Telephoto image of Mare Moscoviense is at upper right with Tsiolkovsky and its bright central peak at lower right. You can start to see vague outlines of many more craters in this view. Click for more historic photos. Credit: Roscosmos
Telephoto image of Mare Moscoviense is at upper right with Tsiolkovsky and its bright central peak at lower right. You can begin to see vague outlines of many more craters in this picture. Click for more historic photos. Credit: Roscosmos

Only two dark ovals were seen, Mare Moscoviense (Sea of Moscow) and the lava-filled floor of the crater Tsiolkovsky, named for Konstantin Tsiolkovksy, the Russian rocket pioneer. The rest, which looks like dried paste, is jammed with craters and related the near side’s light-toned, cratered highlands. Both are remnants of the original lunar crust that solidified as the moon cooled after formation.

The dramatic difference between near side and far side shows up in this much more recent global map of the map made by Clementine Mission in 1994. The map is centered on the near side with its many lunar "seas" or maria. The far side trails off to the left and right of center. Mare Moscoviense is at upper right. Credit: NASA
The dramatic difference between near side and far side shows up in this much more recent global map of the map made by Clementine Mission in 1994. The map is centered on the near side with its many lunar “seas” or maria. The far side trails off to the left and right of center. Mare Moscoviense is at upper right. Credit: NASA

Darker areas or “seas” are more recent basaltic lavas that welled up to fill huge impact scars left by colliding asteroids. They contain iron-rich minerals from deep beneath the crust which make them less reflective, hence darker in comparison to the highlands.

Tidal locking results in the Moon rotating about its axis in about the same time it takes to orbit the Earth (left side). If the Moon didn't spin at all, then it would alternately show its near and far sides to the Earth while moving around our planet in orbit, as shown in the figure on the right. Credit: Wikipedia
Tidal locking results in the moon rotating about its axis in about the same time it takes to orbit the Earth (left side). If the Moon didn’t spin at all, then it would alternately show its near and far sides to the Earth while moving around our planet in orbit, as shown in the figure on the right. Credit: Wikipedia


The moon hides its back or far  side through a neat trick – it rotates at the same rate as it revolves around the Earth. Normally, rotation would bring new features into view, but every little bit it turns, it moves an equal amount along its orbit, hiding what would otherwise be exposed. It’s called synchronous rotation or tidal locking. Most of the larger moons in the solar system are tidally locked to their planets. Jupiter’s four biggest and brightest moons are a great example.

Luna 3 probe sent to the moon by the then Soviet Union. It held two cameras and its own film processing lab. Credit: NASA
Luna 3 probe sent to the moon by the then Soviet Union. It held two cameras and its own film processing lab. Credit: NASA

Equipped with both wide angle (200 mm) and telephoto (500 mm) lenses, Luna 3 took 29 pictures covering about 70 percent of the far side during its loop around the moon. The first picture was shot from 39,500 miles away (63,500 km), the last taken 40 minutes later from 41,445 miles (66,700 km) distant. After the photo session was done, the probe passed over the moon’s north pole and headed back toward Earth.

Temperature and radiation-resistant film used for the photos was automatically moved to an onboard processor where it was developed, fixed and dried. A cathode ray tube then shot a beam of light through the film and onto a photoelectric multiplier, a light-sensitive device that converted the different gradations of tone into electric signals which were then transmitted to Earth. Almost sounds like a fire brigade, but hey it worked!

High resolution photo map of the moon's far side imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mare Moscoviense lies at upper left and Tsiolkovsky at lower left. Click for a hi res image. Credit: NASA
High resolution photo map of the moon’s far side imaged by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mare Moscoviense lies at upper left and Tsiolkovsky at lower left. Click for a hi res image. Credit: NASA

So what’s the reason for the moon’s split personality? We know the far side crust is 50 miles (80 km) thick versus 37 miles (60 km) for the near side. A thicker far side crust may have prevented magma from reaching and flooding the surface as they did on the near side. Heat released by the decay of radioactive elements also may play a role. NASA’s Lunar Prospector probe found more on the near side, where they may have encouraged the formation of hot magmas that eventually found their way to the surface.

What caused the fascinating asymmetry is unknown, but it may have to do with the slowing of the moon’s rotation into its present tidally-locked state under the heavy hand of Earth’s dominating gravitational influence.