Zodiacal light to bring eerie glow to evening sky this weekend

This weekend will bring a great opportunity for stargazers to see the zodiacal light, an eerie glow near the horizon which is only visible around the equinox.

The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as false dawn, appears in the western sky shortly after sunset around the vernal equinox, which occurs on March 20, 2018.

This weekend will provide a good chance for onlookers to view the zodiacal light not only because the equinox is only days away, but also because this weekend features a new moon, meaning there will be little natural light pollution for the light to contend with.

ap zodiacal light
ap zodiacal light

The Zodiacal light, left, the Venus and the Milky Way, right, appear near the top of the Three-Stone Hill on the Bukk Plateau, near Felsotarkany, 137 kms northeast of Budapest, Hungary, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. (Peter Komka/MTI via AP)

The zodiacal light is not a source of light in the night sky but rather is just reflected light from the sun.

"What we're seeing is sunlight reflecting off dust grains that circle the Sun in the inner solar system," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said.

"These dust grains journey across our sky in the ecliptic, the same plane as the moon and the planets," JPL said.

ecliptic plane gif
ecliptic plane gif

This animation shows the cosmic dust responsible for the zodiacal lights in the solar system's ecliptic plane. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, the zodiacal lights will be best seen during the evening after sunset, while those in the Southern Hemisphere should look for them before sunrise.

This means that people across the United States should be able to see the zodiacal light between one and two hours after sunset when the evening twilight fades to dark, weather permitting.

"It looks like a hazy pyramid of light in the west after true darkness falls," EarthSky said.

Those hoping to see the light should head away from any source of light pollution for the best chance to see the phenomenon. If there is too much light pollution, the sky will be too bright and wash out the zodiacal light.

"You definitely do need a dark sky location to see the zodiacal light, someplace where city lights aren't obscuring the natural lights in the sky," EarthSky said.

In addition to the zodiacal light, evening stargazers this weekend should be able to see Venus and Mercury shine in the western sky after sunset.

Venus will be the brighter of the two planets and will serve as a reference point to help people spot the elusive planet Mercury, which can be difficult to spot due to how dim it appears. Mercury will be visible just above and to the right of Venus each evening through the weekend.

Uranus will also be hidden in the western sky after sunset and will be not too far above Venus. However, to spot the distant planet requires a telescope as it is too dim to see with the unaided eye.

The evening of March 19 will be a particularly good night to look for Uranus, weather permitting, as it will be sitting in the sky just to the right of the crescent moon after sunset. This will make it easier to find with a telescope among a sea of countless stars.

March 27 through March 29 will also provide excellent opportunities to spot Uranus through a telescope as it will appear right next to Venus after sunset.

Questions or comments? Email Brian Lada at Brian.Lada@accuweather.com and be sure to follow him on Twitter!