Article image

Zodiacal light’s mysterious origin is finally discovered

The night sky holds countless wonders, one of which is the enigmatic glow known as the zodiacal light. This faint, diffuse light, visible in the vast space between the planets, has captivated observers for centuries.

Recent research led by a 45-member team sheds new light on the origins of this celestial phenomenon, challenging long-held beliefs and unveiling the pivotal role of heat in the cosmic dance of dust.

Enigma of the zodiacal cloud

The zodiacal cloud, a term that may sound esoteric to some, is essentially the light that we see reflected from a cosmic dustbin filled with debris from comets. These particles scatter sunlight, painting a faint glow across the canvas of our night sky called the zodiacal light.

Traditional theories suggested that these particles were the result of high-speed collisions that pulverized comet ejecta. However, this view has been turned on its head by recent findings published in the journal Icarus.

Dr. Peter Jenniskens is a meteor astronomer at the SETI Institute and a leading figure in this research. “Comets eject most debris as large sand-grain to pebble-sized particles, called meteoroids,” Jenniskens explains.

“While these meteoroids are behind the meteors in our meteor showers, the zodiacal cloud is mostly composed of much finer particles, akin to tobacco smoke, which are challenging to detect,” he continued.

Disappearing pebbles and zodiacal light

A key question that puzzled researchers was why these pebble-sized particles disintegrate over time.

“Meteor showers show us this loss of pebbles over time, because older showers tend to contain fewer bright meteors than young showers,” said Jenniskens. “We set out to investigate what is responsible.”

To tackle this mystery, Jenniskens spearheads the NASA-sponsored CAMS network, a global initiative that uses low-light video security cameras to monitor the night sky for meteors.

This effort, supported by a dedicated team of researchers and citizen scientists, has significantly advanced our understanding of meteor showers.

Peter S. Gural, a detection specialist on the team, developed sophisticated software that plays a crucial role in this research.

“We developed software that detects meteors in videos recorded from different locations and then triangulates their trajectory in the atmosphere,” Gural explains. “Meteors arriving from the same direction each day belong to a meteor shower.”

The culmination of 13 years of observations has recently been published as the “Atlas of Earth’s Meteor Showers,” a comprehensive guide that maps out the trajectories of meteors and provides invaluable insights into each known meteor shower.

Culprit behind the zodiacal light curtain

One of the team’s significant discoveries was the role of heat in the disintegration of comet debris.

Initially, it was thought that proximity to the Sun, leading to more collisions, would result in the rapid destruction of pebble-sized particles.

However, the research revealed a surprising twist: these pebbles were far more resilient than anticipated.

“Because there is more comet dust closer to the Sun, we had expected collisions there would pulverize the pebbles that much faster,” Jenniskens clarifies. “Instead, we found that the pebbles survived better than expected.” 

Meteor clusters show evidence of thermal breakdown

This process of thermal stress is evident near Earth and extends all the way to the orbit of Mercury. In the extreme environment within Mercury’s orbit, the intense heat causes the particles to disintegrate by shedding material.

A fascinating manifestation of this phenomenon is the observation of meteor clusters. “Here at Earth, we sometimes see that process in action when in a short time of say 10 seconds we detect ten or twenty meteors in part of the sky, a meteor cluster, the result of a meteoroid having fallen apart by thermal stresses just before entering Earth’s atmosphere,” Jenniskens concluded.

Zodiacal light: Interplay of light, dust, and heat in space

In summary, the fascinating research led by Dr. Peter Jenniskens and his international team has revolutionized our understanding of the zodiacal light. These brilliant scientists discovered that heat, rather than collisions, plays a pivotal role in shaping the cosmic dust between the planets.

By utilizing advanced technology and global cooperation, the team has unveiled the intricate processes that govern the disintegration of comet debris, challenging previous theories and opening new avenues for astronomical research.

This discovery enriches our knowledge of the cosmos and highlights the dynamic interplay of forces that craft the beauty of our night sky, offering a deeper appreciation for the celestial phenomena that surround us.

The full study was published in the journal Icarus.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day