Mars Dust May Cause the Zodiacal Glow You Can See This Month

For centuries now, humans have observed the astronomical phenomenon of “zodiacal light.” (Occasionally known by the more romantic moniker, “zodiacal glow.”) The phenomenon takes form as a triangular illumination in the night sky or early morning, depending on your location on Earth. In the Northern Hemisphere, you can peep zodiacal light at night in the late winter and early spring months; come late summer and early fall, the same locale may spot the light show at dawn. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, reverse those factors.

Across human history, zodiacal light has accrued significance among varied cultures, from Mesoamerica to Golden Age Islam. But all this notwithstanding, the source of the spectacle has long evaded scientists. In the 1970s, data collected by the Pioneer 10 (née F) led to the conclusion that interplanetary dust may cause the distinct illumination. But that was only one piece of the puzzle; recent research suggests that the dust in question could originate on the surface of our old buddy Mars.

An image of the night sky phenomenon Zodiacal Light.

ESO/ Y. Beletsky

Anyone who has seen a Martian movie knows that our red neighbor packs a few million attics’ share of dust. According to new findings, that dust may interact with our atmosphere in such a way as to form the long-observed zodiacal light. This revelation comes by way of the  Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, which recently published an article based on data collected by the Juno Spacecraft. Juno began its journey en route to Jupiter in 2011 and has been orbiting the gas giant ever since. On the way, it came into contact with some Mars dust, giving scientists some new insights into the matter. NASA reported on the new proposal in early March, which we caught wind of via  Good News Network.

No matter where zodiacal light comes from, it’s now on display until mid-April. Unfortunately, it’s tough to see in areas stricken by light pollution; but if you find yourself in a remote, sparsely lit location this month, take a gander. (Night sky if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere; before dawn if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere.) It’s that big bright triangle glowing over the horizon—you can’t miss it.

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