21. Zodiacal light

Brian May is best known as the guitarist of the rock band Queen.[1] The band formed in 1970 with four university students: May, drummer Roger Taylor (not the drummer Roger Taylor who later played for Duran Duran), singer Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara, and bassist Mike Grose, playing their first gig at Imperial College in London on 18 July. Freddie soon changed his surname to Mercury, and after trying a few other bass players the band settled on John Deacon.

Brian May 1972

Brian May, student, around 1972, with some equipment related to his university studies. (Reproduced from [2].)

While May continued his studies, the fledgling band recorded songs, realeasing a debut self-titled album, Queen, in 1973. It had limited success, but they followed up with two more albums in 1974: Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack. These met with much greater success, reaching numbers 5 and 2 on the UK album charts respectively. With this commercial success, Brian May decided to drop his academic ambitions, leaving his Ph.D. studies incomplete. Queen would go on to become one of the most successful bands of all time.

Lead singer Freddie Mercury died of complications from AIDS in 1991. This devastated the band and they stopped performing and recording for some time. In 1994 they released a final studio album, consisting of reworked material recorded by Mercury before he died plus some new recording to fill gaps. And since then May and Taylor have performed occasional concerts with guest singers, billed as Queen + (singer).

The down time and the wealth accumulated over a successful music career allowed Brian May to apply to resume his Ph.D. studies in 2006. He first had to catch up on 33 years of research in his area of study, then complete his experimental work and write up his thesis. He submitted it in 2007 and graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy in the field of astrophysics in 2008.

Brian May 2008

Dr Brian May, astrophysicist, in 2008. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

May’s thesis was titled: A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.[2] May was able to catch up and complete his thesis because the zodiacal dust cloud is a relatively neglected topic in astrophysics, and there was only a small amount of research done on it in the intervening years.

We’ve already met the zodiacal dust cloud (which is also known as the interplanetary dust cloud). It is a disc of dust particles ranging from 10 to 100 micrometres in size, concentrated in the ecliptic plane, the plane of orbit of the planets. Backscattered reflection off this disc of dust particles causes the previously discussed gegenschein phenomenon, visible as a glow in the night sky at the point directly opposite the sun (i.e. when the sun is hidden behind the Earth).

But that’s not the only visible evidence of the zodiacal dust cloud. As stated in the proof using gegenschein:

Most of the light is scattered by very small angles, emerging close to the direction of the original incoming beam of light. As the scattering angle increases, less and less light is scattered in those directions. Until you reach a point somewhere around 90°, where the scattering is a minimum, and then the intensity of scattered light starts climbing up again as the angle continues to increase. It reaches its second maximum at 180°, where light is reflected directly back towards the source.

This implies that there should be another maximum of light scattered off the zodiacal dust cloud, along lines of sight close to the sun. And indeed there is. It is called the zodiacal light. The zodiacal light was first described scientifically by Giovanni Cassini in 1685[3], though there is some evidence that the phenomenon was known centuries earlier.

Title page of Cassini's discovery

Title page of Cassini’s discovery announcement of the zodiacal light. (Reproduced from [3].)

Unlike gegenschein, which is most easily seen high overhead at midnight, the zodiacal light is best seen just after sunset or just before dawn, because it appears close to the sun. The zodiacal light is a broad, roughly triangular band of light which is broadest at the horizon, narrowing as it extends up into the sky along the ecliptic plane. The broad end of the zodiacal light points directly towards the direction of the sun below the horizon. This in itself provides evidence that the sun is in fact below the Earth’s horizon at night.

zodiacal light at Paranal

Zodiacal light seen from near the tropics, Paranal Observatory, Chile. Note the band of light is almost vertical. (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International image by ESO/Y.Beletsky, from Wikimedia Commons.)

The zodiacal light is most easily seen in the tropics, because, as Brian May writes: “it is here that the cone of light is inclined at a high angle to the horizon, making it still visible when the Sun is well below the horizon, and the sky is completely dark.”[2] This is because the zodiacal dust is concentrated in the plane of the ecliptic, so the reflected sunlight forms an elongated band in the sky, showing the plane of the ecliptic, and the ecliptic is at a high, almost vertical angle, when observed from the tropics.

zodiacal light at Washington

Zodiacal light observed from a mid-latitude, Washington D.C., sketched by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot in 1876. The band of light is inclined at an angle. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Unlike most other astronomical phenomena, this shows us in a single glance the position of a well-defined plane in space. From tropical regions, we can see that the plane is close to vertical with respect to the ground. At mid-latitudes, the plane of the zodiacal light is inclined closer to the ground plane. And at polar latitudes the zodiacal light is almost parallel to the ground. These observations show that at different latitudes the surface of the Earth is inclined at different angles to a visible reference plane in the sky. The Earth’s surface must be curved (in fact spherical) for this to be so.

zodiacal light from Europe

Zodiacal light observed from higher latitude, in Europe. The band of light is inclined at an even steeper angle. (Public domain image reproduced from [4].)

[I could not find a good royalty-free image of the zodiacal light from near-polar latitudes, but here is a link to copyright image on Flickr, taken from Kodiak, Alaska. Observe that the band of the zodiacal light (at left) is inclined at more than 45° from the vertical. https://www.flickr.com/photos/photonaddict/39974474754/ ]

zodiacal light at Mauna Kea

Zodiacal light seen over the Submillimetre Array at Mauna Kea Observatories. (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International by Steven Keys and keysphotography.com, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Furthermore, at mid-latitudes the zodiacal light is most easily observed at different times in the different hemispheres, and these times change with the date during the year. Around the March equinox, the zodiacal light is best observed from the northern hemisphere after sunset, while it is best observed from the southern hemisphere before dawn. However around the September equinox it is best observed from the northern hemisphere before dawn and from the southern hemisphere after sunset. It is less visible in both hemispheres at either of the solstices.

seasonal variation in zodiacal light from Tenerife

Seasonal variation in visibility of the zodiacal light, as observed by Brian May from Tenerife in 1971. The horizontal axis is day of the year. The central plot shows time of night on the vertical axis, showing periods of dark night sky (blank areas), twilight (horizontal hatched bands), and moonlight (vertical hatched bands). The upper plot shows the angle of inclination of the ecliptic (and hence the zodiacal light) at dawn, which is a maximum of 87° on the September equinox, and a minimum of 35° on the March equinox. The lower plot shows the angle of inclination of the ecliptic at sunset, which is a maximum of 87° on the March equinox. (Reproduced from [2].)

This change in visibility is because of the relative angles of the Earth’s surface to the plane of the dust disc. At the March equinox, northern mid-latitudes are closest to the ecliptic at local sunset, but far from the ecliptic at dawn, while southern mid-latitudes are close to the ecliptic at dawn and far from it at sunset. The situation is reversed at the September equinox. At the solstices, mid-latitudes in both hemispheres are at intermediate positions relative to the ecliptic.

seasonal variation of Earth with respect to ecliptic

Diagram of the Earth’s tilt relative to the ecliptic, showing how different latitudes are further from or closer to the ecliptic at certain times of year and day.

So the different seasonal visibility and angles of the zodiacal light are also caused by the fact that the Earth is spherical, and inclined at an angle to the ecliptic plane. This natural explanation does not carry over to a flat Earth model, and none of the observations of the zodiacal light have any simple explanation.


[1] Google search, “what is brian may famous for”, https://www.google.com/search?q=what+is+brian+may+famous+for (accessed 2019-07-23).

[2] May, B. H. A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud. Ph.D. thesis, Imperial College London, 2008. https://doi.org/10.1007%2F978-0-387-77706-1

[3] Cassini, G. D. “Découverte de la lumière celeste qui paroist dans le zodiaque” (“Discovery of the celestial light that resides in the zodiac”). De l’lmprimerie Royale, par Sebastien Mabre-Cramoisy, Paris, 1685. https://doi.org/10.3931/e-rara-7552

[4] Guillemin, A. Le Ciel Notions Élémentaires D’Astronomie Physique, Libartie Hachette et Cie, Paris, 1877. https://books.google.com/books?id=v6V89Maw_OAC

3 thoughts on “21. Zodiacal light”

  1. I’ve seen images like these before, but I had always assumed it was sunlight reflecting off of Earth’s atmosphere. Fascinating stuff.

    I might have to try to get a photo or three of the zodiacal light myself, once my new camera finally arrives. I’ll also try for the gegenshein effect, too.

  2. Thank you, David. I knew about the zodiacal light, and I knew about May and his dissertation, but I had never thought about the angle of the light being related to latitude.

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