Zodiacal Light

Zodiacal light seen from Cerro Paranal,  northern Chile

Zodiacal light seen from Cerro Paranal, northern Chile

Poem: “Zodiacal Light”

If you have seen this Light
count it as an honor
the cosmic night does not shine
on everyone so clearly
high up on mountaintops remote
far away at sea
a solar and a cosmic light transmits
through countless unseen windows, mirrors
like looking glasses show
a secret brilliance
to let us know
that wonder is not just found
in far away suns and stars
but we are touched
both day and night
by the universe’s many arms

What is zodiacal light?

Zodiacal light in the eastern sky before twilight

Zodiacal light in the eastern sky before twilight August 2000. Zodiacal Light is passing through the constellation Cancer.

Micro-dust that includes silicate occupies the ecliptic plane (sun’s path). Silica has reflective and light-transmitting properties as seen in the application of silica as extruded glass to make optical fiber (fiber-optics).

Solar radiation through these dust clouds along the ecliptic produces a halo-like line of zodiacal light. The diffusion of this light through a denser array of silicate particles and the sun’s electro-conductive plasma contacting the earth’s atmosphere and spreading upon impact may create the broader portion of this glow in the cone-like shape of zodiacal light where it contacts the earth.

In a 2010 article in the Astrophysical Journal, David Nesvorny and Peter Jenniskens attributed over 85 percent of the dust to occasional fragmentations of Jupiter-family comets that are nearly dormant. [http://iopscience.iop.org/0004-637X/713/2/816]

From Curiosities of the Sky by Garrett Serviss (1909):

“There is a singular phenomenon in the sky — one of the most puzzling of all — which has long arrested the attention of astronomers, defying their efforts at explanation, but which probably not one in a hundred, and possibly not one in a thousand, of the readers of this book has ever seen.” – chapter: The Zodiacal Light Mystery

Moonlight and Zodiacal Light Over La Silla Observatory

Moonlight and Zodiacal Light Over La Silla Observatory. Photo taken by Alan Fitzsimmons. Moon lies just outside frame


Theosophist Blavatsky (1831-1891) claimed that zodiacal light was “entirely unknown to science.” Apparently she was unaware of Italian mathematician, astronomer, engineer, and astrologer Giovanni Domenico Cassini who first investigated this phenomenon, or of Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss mathematician and close friend of Isaac Newton known for his work on the zodiacal light problem. Blavatasky’s assertion was that only esoteric initiates could see this light or understand its true significance.

Contemporary Investigation

Brian May in 2013 (photo by Brian Minkoff/London Pixels)

Brian May in 2013 (photo by Brian Minkoff/London Pixels)

Brian May, guitarist for the rock band Queen, earned a PhD in astrophysics with his thesis A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud (2007) and previously co-authored An Investigation of the Motion of zodiacal dust Particles (Part I) (1973) both of which deal with the particle media through which this phenomenon.

There is still much to be discovered as technology develops and as this now-trendy area of study gets more attention by researchers. That still leaves the wonder of the rarely observed phenomenon to be enjoyed, hopefully by more and more people. I believe direct encounters with especially the more cosmic aspects of nature are key for human development as many become increasingly myopic in their preoccupation with abstract information, and computer-based learning and social interaction.

Will you and I be one of the lucky ones to see it with our own eyes?


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