Zodiacal light

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Zodiacal light is a faint, roughly triangular, whitish glow seen in the night sky which appears to extend up from the vicinity of the sun along the ecliptic or zodiac. Caused by sunlight scattered by space dust in the zodiacal cloud, it is so faint that either moonlight or light pollution renders it invisible. The zodiacal light decreases in intensity with distance from the Sun, but on very dark nights it has been observed in a band completely around the ecliptic. In fact, the zodiacal light covers the entire sky, being responsible for 60% of the total skylight on a moonless night. There is also a very faint, but still slightly increased, oval glow directly opposite the Sun which is known as the gegenschein.

The phenomenon of Zodiacal light was first investigated by the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini in 1683 and first explained by Nicolas Fatio de Duillier in 1684.

Contents

Viewing

In the mid-latitudes, the zodiacal light is best observed in the western sky in the spring after the evening twilight has completely disappeared, or in the eastern sky in the autumn just before the morning twilight appears. The zodiacal light appears as a column, brighter at the horizon, tilted at the angle of the ecliptic. Since the light scattered from extremely small dust particles is strongly forward scattering, although the zodiacal light actually extends all the way around the sky, it is brightest when observing at a small angle with the sun. This is why it is most clearly visible near sunrise or sunset, when the sun is blocked, but the dust particles nearest the line of sight to the sun are not. The dust band that causes the zodiacal light is uniform across the whole ecliptic.

The dust further from the ecliptic is almost undetectable except when viewed at a small angle with the sun. Thus it is possible to see more of the width at small angles toward the sun, and it appears wider near the horizon, closer to the sun under the horizon.

Formation

Zodiacal light is produced by sunlight reflecting off dust particles in the solar system known as cosmic dust. Consequently, its spectrum is the same as the solar spectrum. The material producing the zodiacal light is located in a lens-shaped volume of space centered on the sun and extending well out beyond the orbit of Earth. This material is known as the interplanetary dust cloud. Since most of the material is located near the plane of the solar system, the zodiacal light is seen along the ecliptic. The amount of material needed to produce the observed zodiacal light is amazingly small. If it were in the form of 1 mm particles, each with the same albedo (reflecting power) as Earth's moon, each particle would be 8 km from its neighbors. The gegenschein may be because particles directly opposite the sun as seen from Earth would be in full phase.

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