Photograph by ESO/Y. Beletsky
Read Caption

Zodiacal light is a faint, triangular glow best seen in dark skies free of light pollution.

Photograph by ESO/Y. Beletsky

This Week’s Night Sky: Look for Pyramid-Shaped Lights

The elusive zodiacal lights will glow on the horizon, and Jupiter’s moons play peek-a-boo as they move around the planet.

Moon and Jupiter.  Two of the brightest celestial objects in the night sky, the moon and Jupiter, rise together in the east after darkness falls on Tuesday, February 23.

The two will appear separated by only two degrees—equal to four lunar disks side-by-side. But don’t let their apparent proximity fool you. While the moon is a mere 1.3 light-seconds away, it takes reflected sunlight from Jupiter 37 minutes to travel to your eye.

Zodiacal Light.  As the moon moves out of the early evening sky, skywatchers will find ideal sky conditions for hunting down the elusive zodiacal lights after Wednesday, February 24.

This ethereal light is caused by sunlight reflecting off countless dust particles scattered along the plane of the solar system, between the planets.

Ancient Romans thought this ghostly glow came from far-off campfires below the horizon, while the ancient Greeks speculated that it must be caused by distant volcanic explosions.

This subtle astronomical phenomenon is best seen by observers across the mid-northern latitudes, who are far from city lights in the dark countryside.

View Images

On Tuesday night, the moon and Jupiter appear to rise together in the southeast sky and dominate the overnight hours.

Look for a pyramid-shaped glow—fainter than the Milky Way—rising above the western horizon after sunset over the next two week period.

Jupiter’s Shadow Play.  Starting late evening on Saturday, February 27, skywatchers with backyard telescopes get a chance to catch Jupiter’s largest moons play a game of peek-a-boo as they pass in front of and behind the gas giant.

First up, the icy moon Europa will appear to magically wink out as it enters Jupiter’s shadow starting 9:03 p.m. EST. At 9:08 p.m. neighbouring moon Ganymede pops into view on the opposite side of the planet. If you have patience, the volcanic moon Io’s tiny black shadow will appear to glide across the planet’s cloud tops from 11:06 p.m. to 1:21 a.m. The moon itself will appear to follow its shadow onto the planet’s disk beginning at 11:19 p.m.   

Moon and Spica.  In the very late hours of Friday, February 26, and into the early morning hours, look for the waning gibbous moon to form an eye-catching pair with the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, the maiden.

View Images

Late Friday night, look for the moon paired with Spica in the constellation Virgo, along with Jupiter and Mars bracketing this amazing cosmic line-up.

The striking, steely blue star Spica is the 15th brightest star in the sky despite being just over 250 light-years from Earth. Its visual dominance is in large part because Spica is actually two stars orbiting each other.

The two stars are separated by only one-tenth the distance that Earth lies from our sun. They are seven and four times wider than our sun, and burn thousands of times brighter. In fact, Spica is so brilliant that scientists believe that even more stars may be part of the same system.

Clear skies!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.