For the next couple of weeks, star gazers will be able to observe a rare astronomical phenomenon in the night sky known as zodiacal light.
The zodiacal light, also known as false dawn, is a luminous cone of white light that becomes visible approximately an hour after sunset in the spring or an hour before dawn in the fall.
According to EarthSky.org, it was believed that zodiacal light came from an unknown phenomena in Earth’s upper atmosphere but scientists now understand that it actually sunlight reflecting on billions of dust grains moving about in outer space. Some believe these dust grains are left-overs from the process that created our Earth and the other planets of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Another theory holds that over 85 percent of the dust comes from the occasional fragmentation of comets around Jupiter according to an Astrophysical Journal article.
A phenomenon known as the Poynting-Robertson effect forces the dust into a more circular orbit. Therefore a continuous source of new dust particles is needed for the zodiacal light to continue.
Zodiacal Light competes with the lights of the small settlement of Cumberland Beach.
The dust grains spread out from the sun in the same plane of space occupied by the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and other planets in our solar system. This plane, or flat space, around the sun translates in our sky to a narrow pathway called the ecliptic.
The ancestors of North Americans called the ecliptic Zodiac or Pathway of Animals. The term zodiacal light evolved from the word Zodiac.
In order to view the zodiacal light, one must be away from city lights and in an area with a dark sky. If the Milky Way can be seen, the zodiacal light will certainly be visible because it is even brighter than the Milky Way. Zodiacal light decreases in intensity with distance away from the Sun, but on very dark nights it has been observed in a band around the ecliptic. In fact, the zodiacal light covers the entire sky.
Space.com says the zodiacal light will be visible for the next couple of weeks.