zodiacal light

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zodiacal light

zodiacal light or zodiacal band, a faint band of light sometimes seen in the western sky just after sunset in the spring, extending up from the horizon at the point where the sun has just set, or in the eastern sky just before sunrise in the autumn. The light is so faint as to be obscured by moonlight. It is caused by the reflection and scattering of sunlight by a sparse band of tiny dust particles that appears to be an extension of the solar corona, stretching out beyond the orbit of Jupiter. Concentrated in the plane of the ecliptic, the faint light is best seen in the region of the sky called the zodiac. Near the equator the zodiacal light sometimes seems to stretch completely across the sky. It was first investigated and explained by the astronomer Gian Domenico Cassini about 1690.

See also gegenschein.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Zodiacal Light


a faint glow extending along the ecliptic (that is, in the region of the zodiac) and observable in the stellar sky in the west soon after the onset of darkness or in the east before sunrise, when the ecliptic is sufficiently steeply inclined to the horizon. The glow is accounted for by the scattering of sunlight by dust particles moving around the sun.

Zodiacal light has the form of cones that widen toward the horizon. With increasing distance from the horizon, the brightness of the cones diminishes, and they gradually develop into the zodiacal band—a weakly glowing band about 10° in width, barely discernible against the background of the night sky. In the region opposite the sun, the gegenschein, or counterglow, is superposed on the zodiacal light. In the middle latitudes, the cone of zodiacal light is clearly visible from September through November before morning twilight (autumnal, or morning zodiacal light), and the western cone can be seen from January through March after evening twilight (vernal, or evening zodiacal light). During summer nights the zodiacal light is observed as a diffuse glow along the northern horizon (northern, or summer zodiacal light). The cones of the zodiacal light can be seen most clearly in the equatorial countries when the ecliptic is perpendicular to the horizon. The diffuse glow of the zodiacal light spreads over the entire sky; however, its intensity decreases rapidly with increasing distance from the sun and the ecliptic. On the average, the glow of the zodiacal light is about 15 percent of the total radiation of the night sky in the visible region of the spectrum, although the cones of zodiacal light are two to three times brighter than the night sky background. The emission of zodiacal light is partially polarized, and the degree of polarization depends on the angular distance from the sun. The distribution of the energy in the spectrum of the zodiacal light is close to that of the sun; as in the solar spectrum, the spectrum of zodiacal light includes absorption lines.

The study of zodiacal light is of high scientific interest, since it can yield information on the distribution of dust in interplanetary space. It has been established that dust particles in interplanetary space are concentrated near the sun in the form of an ellipsoidlike cloud (zodiacal cloud), whose dust content decreases with increasing distance from the sun and the plane of the ecliptic. Zodiacal light is investigated by photometric and spectral measurements. Observations made from artificial earth satellites are most valuable for its study, since here the effect of the earth’s atmosphere on the results of investigations is excluded.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

zodiacal light

[zō′dī·ə·kəl ′līt]
A diffuse band of luminosity occasionally visible on the ecliptic; it is sunlight diffracted and reflected by dust particles in the solar system within and beyond the orbit of the earth.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
Zodiacal light is a faint, roughly triangular, diffuse white glow seen in the night sky that appears to extend up from the vicinity of the Sun along the ecliptic or zodiac.
At best, the zodiacal light is no brighter than the dim plane of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, so atmospheric haze, a bright moon, or light pollution can hide the faint cone from view.
Their drawings, researchers later realized, show more than just the corona and zodiacal light. Near the limb of the moon, the sketches reveal the strange phenomenon of horizon glow, caused by the scattering of light from gas or dust suspended several kilometers above the moon.
It would observe far beyond the sources of the zodiacal light, which interfers with earth- and near-earth-based observations of faint objects, particularly in the infrared.
And, in a sky so dark and clear I could trace the zodiacal light bridge across it, I saw the two edges of the previously tailless comet's tail extending up to 15[degrees] long.
My point is that in planning a town, provision should be made to meet as far as possible the requirements of those who 'consider the heavens,' ...where they can go of an evening to study the planets in season, the moon, a comet visible, meteors, the Zodiacal Light, and, grandest of all, the universe of stars, with the Milky Way, forming the grandest canopy above us that can be conceived...
[5] EVENING: The zodiacal light may be visible for two weeks at mid-northern latitudes about 90 minutes after sunset.
We awoke early on eclipse morning, with the Magellanic Clouds still visible and the Zodiacal Light indicating the imminent sunrise.
Solar research, studies of Cepheid variables and of the zodiacal light are especially prominent....
Faint nebulae require a dark sky to be captured, and Mr Szymanek showed many images taken on his numerous observing trips to La Palma--where the naked-eye limiting magnitude can reach 7.9 and the zodiacal light is so bright that it is almost a nuisance!
[2-16] EVENING: The zodiacal light is visible at mid-northern latitudes from dark sites: Look toward the west after sunset for a tall, hazy pyramid of light.
15-30 DAWN: The zodiacal light is visible in the east 120 to 80 minutes before sunrise from dark locations.