Dust. It finds its way into our houses, coating every surface with its fine, gritty film. Clogging up our sinus cavities, it can bring on a sneeze at the most embarrassing moments. It makes our eyes water and our throats raspy. If you think there is too much dust here on earth, that is nothing compared to what is out in space.
Astronomers like to look at planets and stars and spout off mind-bending figures of the number of celestial objects out there, but the lowly dust has them all beat. You see, our universe has the propensity to create more small things than large ones. In fact, as far as solid objects are concerned there are far more particles of dust than anything else anywhere.
Do you want to see some of that space dust for yourself? This time of year, late winter and early spring, is the perfect time to view the strange and seldom-seen phenomenon known as the Zodiacal Light. Maybe you are surprised that you have never seen or even heard of that weird-sounding word starting with a “z.” Do not even worry about it. I point it out at stargazing gatherings all the time, and nobody else has either.
Looking for the light
Our dark Methow night skies are perfect, but you need to find a place out of town and away from distracting lights. A moonless night is a must, and either the first or the last weeks of March would be perfect.
You will want to start looking for it in the deep evening twilight just before and just after it gets completely dark. Look for a dim but large glow of light shaped like a pyramid extending upwards from where the sun sets. What causes that glow? Dust. The key to knowing that you have spotted the Zodiacal Light is that it is tilting to the left. Sometimes it is confused with light pollution from a distant city, but the tilted orientation is a dead giveaway.
It can also be seen in the morning in the east just before dawn. Fall is the easiest time of year to see the eastern presentation, and the tilt this time will be towards the right.
The word Zodiacal comes from the word Zodiac, which comes from the Greek word meaning “pathway of animals.” All this refers to the 12 constellations of the Zodiac, most of which are animals, and surround the earth in a big circle in the sky.
From our point of view all the planets, the moon and our sun move through those 12 constellations. Why? Because it is the gravitational plane of our solar system and dust, even though very tiny, feels the effect of gravity too.
So what else is there to look at up there? Be sure to check out the mighty Orion, sloping to the west and closer to the sunset glow. He is hard to miss with his distinctive belt and bright stars top and bottom. To the left of Orion, very bright Sirius is the closest star to us, besides the sun, that we can easily see in the night sky.
The beautiful planets that were in the west just after sunset have taken up residence in the east just before sunrise. In early March, look for brilliant Venus with much dimmer Mars just below in the eastern sky. You might be able to pick out Saturn and Mercury very close together below and to the left of Venus. On March 29, Venus, Mars and Saturn and a small crescent moon will be grouped very close together in the pre-dawn sky. Look for Jupiter below and to the left.
One more thing about that dust. The dust you find on top of that picture frame in your bedroom is silicate-based and contaminated with all sorts of disgusting stuff like minuscule insect parts and tiny flakes of our skin. In space, however, dust is pure carbon, which gives it the gauzy blue-white sheen that we see in the Zodiacal Light.