Image: Sky map
Starry Night Software
For the next two weeks, the faint glow of the zodiacal light may be visible in the eastern sky just before dawn.
By Starry Night Education
updated 10/10/2012 6:12:30 PM ET 2012-10-10T22:12:30

What do the prophet Muhammad and Queen’s guitarist Brian May have in common? Look to the sky for the next two weeks for the answer: the zodiacal light.

The zodiacal light is a very rare astronomical phenomenon. It is important in Islam because Muhammad used it to describe the times of prayer. Rock guitarist Brian May of Queen, meanwhile, has a doctorate in astronomy for research into (you guessed it) the zodiacal light.

For the next couple of weeks, night sky observers will have an excellent opportunity to observe the zodiacal light.

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We all know about the large bodies that make up the solar system: the sun, the planets and their moons, the asteroids and comets. But there is a lot of interplanetary matter which has never coalesced into large solid bodies.

This is mostly dust left over from the original nebula out of which the solar system formed, and it’s concentrated in the plane of the solar system, which is known as the ecliptic or zodiac.

At certain times of the year under certain conditions, this thin interplanetary dust can be seen with the naked eye, and the next two weeks present such an opportunity.

The first requirement for seeing the zodiacal light is an extremely dark sky. Its glow is much fainter than that of the Milky Way, so that, if you can’t see the Milky Way from your location, you can forget about seeing the zodiacal light.

The second requirement is that there be no moon in the night sky. That’s why the next two weeks are so important:the moon will be close to the sun or in the evening sky, leaving the morning sky moonless.

The third requirement is that the ecliptic, the line in the sky where the sun, moon, and planets move, be at a high angle to the horizon. This happens in February and March in the western sky after dusk, and in September and October in the eastern sky before dawn.

The sky map guide associated with this story shows the eastern sky at 5 a.m. local time this week. The Milky Way appears as a ghostly glow of distant stars rising vertically from the east-southeast horizon, marked by the bright stars Sirius and Procyon.

To the Milky Way's left, rising from the eastern horizon at an angle, will be the fainter glow of the sun reflecting off countless particles of interplanetary dust — the zodiacal light. It will follow the path of the ecliptic, marked by Venus and Regulus.

You can tell the difference between the zodiacal light and the Milky Way by its position in the sky, by its shape (conical or triangular, rather than a strip of equal width), and by its faintness.

To improve your chances of seeing the zodiacal light, be sure to give your eyes at least 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness.

For observers in the Southern Hemisphere, the months for best observation are reversed: Dawn in February and March, dusk in September and October.

This article was provided to SPACE.com by Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu .

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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