Capturing Cosmic Dust with a Camera: the Zodiacal Light
Cameras can be strange machines. We tend to think of cameras as devices that faithfully record the nature of the landscape around us, which they do…at least most of the time. When this paradigm does break down, it is usually because the camera has failed to record something important, something that made a moment or an experience worth remembering. Oftentimes when this happens, we become disappointed. How many times have you been scrolling through vacation photos and lamented at how poorly they turned out? Sometimes we even realize the limitations of the camera in the moment itself. Perhaps you’ve experienced something akin to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset and becoming so resigned to the fact that no photograph will ever satisfactorily capture the grandeur in front of you that you begin to ponder the option of chucking your camera into the great chasm below.
On rare occasions though, the camera delights us by managing to capture even MORE than meets the eye. After returning from a recent camping trip to the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington, I was surprised to find an unexpected apparition in some of the long-exposure photographs I took from our campsite on the west coast of San Juan Island.
Getting to the San Juans is no easy task; it took me about 5 hours to get there, even though “there” is just 35 miles by air from my front doorstep. As a result, the islands can feel remote and isolated, but standing along the coast at night is a not so gentle reminder that you’re actually only about eight miles across the Haro Strait from Victoria, a metro area of more than 300,000 people. Taking advantage of a somewhat rare, perfectly clear Pacific Northwest evening, I took a series of 15 second exposures looking west across the strait which I composted into this 180 degree panorama:
The first thing you notice is the egregious light pollution from Victoria. Even the skyglow from Vancouver, five times further away but seven times more populous, is visible through the tress. Amongst all of the artificial light sources though, some natural ones still manage to shine through. The faint tendrils of the winter Milky Way just barely register on the camera’s sensor but the bright winter constellations of Orion, Canis Major, and Taurus forcefully punch their way through. If you look really closely, you’ll see a faint, slightly elongated, pale blue glow hiding in-between the lights of Victoria and Sidney. This is a phenomenon known as the zodiacal light, and it’s what took me by surprise when I started putting these images together. Here’s an annotated version to help you out:
See it? It’s a slightly different color than the light domes and isn’t as round and symmetrical as the light radiating from the cities, but rather looks squished and creeps upward into the sky at an angle. What really betrays the nature of this mysterious glow is its location: it coincides almost perfectly with the ecliptic, the plane of our solar system which is also the apparent path that the Sun, Moon, and planets follow as they move across the night sky.
What does this have to do with the zodiacal light? Well, it turns out that the plane of our solar system is home to lots and lots of dust. Not the dust made of dead skin cells and carpet fuzz you find around your house, but rather interplanetary dust particles made mostly of carbon, silicon, and oxygen. These dust particles are really small, on the order of 10 micrometers in diameter, about the size of a mold spore. The exact source of this dust is controversial; most of it is thought to be the result of collisions between comets and asteroids although some may be leftover from the formation of the solar system itself, tiny pieces of debris that never got incorporated into a planet. Regardless of where it cam from, the dust is really good at reflecting sunlight. Just after sunset (or just prior to sunrise), the angle between the Sun, dust, and Earth is such that the light reflected of the surfaces of the innumerable dust particles reaches our eyes (or cameras) here on Earth, giving rise to the zodiacal light.
When you consider how small the dust is (and that the dust particles are on average more than 2 miles apart from one another!), it’s not hard to understand why the zodiacal light is so faint and difficult to spot. Due to a quirk of celestial geometry, spring is a great time to observe it from the northern hemisphere, but even then spotting it with the naked eye requires extremely dark skies. The conditions in the San Juans, while darker than many spots in Western Washington, are far too light polluted. However, digital cameras are MUCH more sensitive to faint sources of light than the human eye. It’s actually rather common for a camera to detect things in the night sky that aren’t visible otherwise. On the night I saw the aurora borealis for the first time about a year and a half ago, its presence was first betrayed to me as a faint green glow hugging the horizon on my camera’s LCD screen, hours before it became bright enough to see with the naked eye. If not for my camera’s ability to detect it, I would have been fast asleep instead of standing in a marshy field near the Canadian border when the aurora dramatically brightened a few hours later and streamers began appearing all over the sky.
Have you ever captured anything on camera that you found surprising? Share your thoughts or stories in the comments below.