The first time I knowingly saw the zodiacal light, it was so bright that I couldn't believe I'd never seen it before. I was in Chile, across the valley from the professional observatories at Cerro Pachon and Cerro Tololo. I commented to my host, the superb astrophotographer Daniel Verschatse, that the light pollution from nearby La Serena was unbelievably intense. The light in the west was washing out even the Sagittarius Milky Way, which was quite high in the sky at the time.
"Look again," said Verschatse. "That's not light pollution; it's the zodiacal light! See its tall, triangular shape? See how it leans to the right, following the ecliptic?" (In the north, the evening zodiacal light leans left, as shown at right.)
Now that I know what to look for, I see the zodiacal light quite often. I've even seen it — just barely — from my astronomy club's observing field in the outer Boston suburbs. But it's much more prominent if you're far from any artificial light pollution. It's well worth the trip.
The zodiacal light is brightest and broadest near the Sun. But the very brightest part of all can never be seen from Earth, because it's overwhelmed by the Sun's glare. So your best opportunities come right before the onset of morning twilight and after the end of evening twilight, when you can see the sky quite close to the Sun, but the Sun's light is blocked by our own planet.
And since the zodiacal light follows the ecliptic, it's easiest to see when the ecliptic runs highest in the sky near twilight, as shown at right. In the Northern Hemisphere, that happens during the evening from late January through early April, and in the morning from Septmeber through November. (The situation is reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, which is why I could see the zodiacal light so easily on an October evening in Chile.)
Most people prefer to view in the evening, so late winter and early spring are the ideal time. Find spot as far as possible from any artificial lights that has a low western horizon. Go there shortly after sunset on a moonless evening and watch for the zodiacal light to appear as twilight fades.
What are you seeing? The zodiacal light is the combined glow of countless tiny particles (debris from comets and asteroid collisions) that orbit the Sun. Like the dust in an unswept room, their mass is minuscule but their combined surface area is quite large, so they reflect a lot of sunlight. In fact, if it could be condensed into a single point, the zodiacal light would handily outshine all the planets, including even Venus.
As an interesting side note, Brian May, founding member of the rock group Queen, completed his doctoral dissertation on the zodiacal light in 2007, obtaining a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College in London. He had started the thesis in 1970, but took a 35-year break to become a rock celebrity.
Have you seen the zodiacal light? Then share your impressions below with the rest of our readers.