ZODIACAL LIGHT AND THE GEGENSCHEIN

        The orientation of the ecliptic at this time of year makes it a favorable time for trying to view optical phenomena associated with dust in the plane of the planets. The zodiacal light and the gegenschein (German for "counter-glow"), which are often easily seen in the tropics, are most readily seen in the morning sky for our latitude in September and October. This is because the ecliptic -- the projection of Earth's orbit (and hence the approximate plane of the solar system) onto the sky -- rises more nearly vertically from the eastern horizon at this time of year. The two weeks beginning Oct. 19, around new moon, are recommended by the Observer's Handbook as optimum times to search for the faint glow of the zodiacal light this month. The portion of the ecliptic away from the horizon is also higher in the sky and clear of the Milky Way at this time of year, generally making it easier to locate the gegenshein. However, the presence of zeroth-magnitude Saturn near opposition where the gegenshein appears, makes it unlikely that the gegenshein can be observed this autumn.

        The zodiacal light is a faint, roughly triangular shaped glow of light extending away from Sun. The spectrum of the zodiacal light is the same as the solar spectrum, reinforcing the deduction that it is merely sunlight reflected by dust in the plane of the planets. In September and October, because the ecliptic is more nearly perpendicular to the horizon at sunrise, the zodiacal light extends more nearly vertically from the horizon and we have a better opportunity to see it shortly before sunrise than when it lies along the horizon and is lost in the dust and haze of Earth's atmosphere.

        The gegenschein is a faint spot of light in the sky, diametrically opposite Sun. The fact that its spectrum is identical to that of Sun, like the zodiacal light, enforces the conclusion that we are seeing sunlight reflected from dust grains in the plane of the solar system. There have been reports that under very favorable viewing conditions the zodiacal light extends to the gegenschein. The gegenshein is even fainter than the zodiacal light -- fainter than the Milky Way -- so any additional light from Moon, street lights, or a nearby planet and any obscuring haze make it impossible to see this faint glow.

        You should begin looking for the zodiacal light before the beginning of astronomical twilight, the time when sunlight first begins to be in the sky. Astronomical twilight begins about 1 1/2 hours before sunrise, so if you are up a little before then, if the sky is clear, and you can get away from any lights, you might look to the east and try to locate this triangular glow of light extending up to 35 or 40 degrees from the horizon, slanting slightly to the right. Near the horizon it may be more than 15 degrees wide, narrowing to about 5 degrees, and under ideal conditions may be as bright as the brightest parts of the Milky Way. When seen early in the morning it is sometimes called the false dawn, followed later by the true dawn. Roy L. Bishop, writing for the Observer's Handbook, describes it as "a huge, softly radiant pyramid of white light with its base near the horizon and its axis centered on the zodiac."

        H. C. van de Hulst has shown that the dust particles responsible for both of these phenomena must be about 0.04 inch in diameter and must be separated, on average, by about 5 miles. These particles form a very low density cloud of dust, coincident with the plane of the solar system. Sunlight absorbed by the particles is re-emitted as invisible infrared radiation. This reradiation causes the particles to spiral slowly into Sun, thus requiring continuous regeneration of the dust particles composing this cloud. Cometary dust and dust generated by collisions among the asteroids are believed responsible for the maintenance of the dust cloud producing the zodiacal light and the gegenschein.