Mars dust may be the source of the Zodiacal lights

New data from the Juno Mission


Steven Keys, commons.wikimedia.orgZodiacal-lights
Figure 1. Zodiacal lights from the Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii.

The zodiacal light appears before sunrise in the eastern sky, and after sunset in the western sky in the form of a faint pillar or pyramid of gentle glowing light (Figure 1). For thousands of years the lights have been considered mysterious with cultures in the Middle East including them in their pantheon. For Jews and Christians, it displays the wonder and beauty of creation, and points to the majesty of the Creator. Astronomers have subsequently considered that it is formed from interplanetary comet dust in the inner solar system. However, the Juno spacecraft (Figure 2), which was sent on a mission to explore Jupiter, may have discovered another source of the dust that causes the lights.1 It is now claimed by NASA scientists to be caused by the effect of Martian dust forward-scattering sunlight in the near-Earth orbit.2,3

Zodiacal light and the ancients

Figure 2. Artist’s impression of the Juno Mission satellite, 2010. Credit: NASA

The zodiacal light has been known from ancient times. It may be considered to be part of the zodiac, an area of space extending 8° or 9° either side of the ecliptic plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun (not to be confused with the Milky Way or the astrological signs of the zodiac). But it shines brightest near the horizon soon after dusk, and before sunrise where skies are very clear. The phenomenon has been known across the Middle East from early times, especially where desert skies are clearest on moon-less nights. In Arabia, it is said to be visible for several hours.4

Islamic scholars referred to it as the ‘false dawn’ al-fajr al-kādhib, but perhaps echoing earlier Middle Eastern beliefs, Hassān ibn Thābit personified it as Dhū-l-Qarnain in a poem. Historian, Solomon Gandz, also suggests there is an inference to the zodiacal lights in the Middle Eastern god Athtar (or Ishtar, Ashtarte). Also, that it may be linked in Egyptian beliefs to the god Sopt or Sept Ābui (Egyptian spd.w, pronounced ‘Sopdu’),5 being depicted in hieroglyphics with a triangle and quail sopdu.6,7 There is an interesting Ptolomaic text which states: “Words to speak of Sopdu, the Seped-ur in the house of Sykomore, Behedeti, the great god, the colorful feathered, the Horus of the East, who in the morning <lights up> whose rays illuminate the two countries.”8 Some scholars have proposed that the zodiacal lights provided inspiration for the construction of the Egyptian pyramids.9 Gandz also suggested that there is a reference to the zodiacal lights in the Old Testament; for example, in Ecclesiastes 12:2, Isaiah 14:12, and Habakkuk 3:4.10

“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them,” before the sun and the light [אוֹר or] and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain” (Ecclesiastes 12:1–2).

“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star [הֵילֵ֣ל helel], son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!” (Isaiah 14:12)

“His brightness was like the light [אוֹר or]; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power” (Habakkuk 3:4).11

European scholars were somewhat ‘late-to-the-party’ and first discussed the phenomenon in the 17th century; for instance, Giovanni Cassini in 1683, and Nicolas de Duillier in 1684. It is possible that in earlier times the lights were more obvious to Middle Eastern stargazers.

Juno Mission

Figure 3. Interplanetary trajectory plot of the Juno mission en-route to Jupiter, passing through the Martian orbit three times (red circle).

The purpose of the Juno mission (Figure 2) is to obtain better measurements of Jupiter’s gravity, magnetic field, and atmospheric composition (it also investigated volcanism on Io). In order to gain sufficient speed to get to Jupiter, the spacecraft first passed beyond the Mars orbit, and then had to manoeuvre to return to near-Earth, in order to be further accelerated by Earth’s gravity. Therefore, it made several passes through the Mars orbit (Figure 3).

These passes provided evidence of a dust cloud. The solar arrays of the satellite detected an unexpected number of tiny impacts from dust. The dust was typically 10 to 300 micrometres in size (<0.3 mm, so miniscule), but packed-a-punch when hitting the array; the flakes of which were detected by an onboard camera. The location of the dust cloud ranged from Earth’s orbit at 1 AU out to 2.06 AU, and so encompasses the Mars orbit which is at 1.52 AU.12 This indicates that the dust cloud is effectively of Martian origin because it is being restrained from passing further out into space by the orbital resonance of Jupiter.


Figure 4. Mars from the Viking Orbiter - processed red and violet filter images.

Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, is a dry, dusty, and cold place, and very inhospitable for life. It has a distinct reddish colour and is about half the diameter of Earth (Figure 4). The typical noon air temperature at the equator is around -5°C, and a bitterly cold -87°C at the poles. It is at the poles where ice from carbon dioxide sometimes forms; about 95% of the atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide. The surface air pressure is typically less than 10 hPa, only 1% that of Earth. The magnetic field on Mars is also very weak, thus insufficient to protect the Martian atmosphere from losses to space.

Secular researchers and institutions have spent vast sums of money looking for life through the various Mars missions, all to no avail; see Life on Mars? Most of the surface is a red desert environment (Mars red planet), which occasionally gives planetary-wide dust storms that last for months. For example, a major global dust storm began in June 2018, lasted for several months, and led to the demise of the 15-year-old NASA Opportunity Rover mission. Large storms typically form every three Martian years (5.5 Earth years), especially in the southern hemisphere summer when the planet is at perihelion (its closest approach to the Sun).13

The Mars dust storms, both small and large, have the effect of lifting water vapour to the upper atmosphere, where it is separated into hydrogen and oxygen ions by ultra violet light. Then it is carried away in the solar wind.14,15 It is these dust storm events that are believed to be the cause of the interplanetary cloud that has now been discovered in space. However, scientists are still trying to determine how dust may escape from Mars, given the escape velocity of about 5km/s.


The surface of Mars has geological features that are best explained by the action of water. The water was most probably there from the original creation, but has subsequently been lost from the surface (as described above, see also: Water on Mars). From a creation science perspective, evidence that the dust cloud that causes the zodiacal light comes from Mars, and that the lights were well known in the Middle East several thousand years ago, suggests the loss of water and dust began in earlier times. Perhaps the initial loss was connected to interplanetary cataclysmic events at the time of Noah’s Flood.16 While we may wonder about the divine purpose in this loss of water and dust, it now appears that it adds to the beauty and wonder visible upon the Earth in the form of the zodiacal lights.

Published: 15 March 2022

References and notes

  1. Shekhtan, L., Serendipitous Juno detections shatter ideas about origin of zodiacal light, jpl.nasa.gov, 9 March, 2021. Return to text.
  2. Jorgensen, J.L. and six others, Distribution of interplanetary dust detected by the Juno spacecraft and its contribution to the Zodiacal Light, Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 126, 2021, e2020JE006509 | doi.org/10.1029/2020JE006509. Return to text.
  3. Phillips, T., A big glowing cloud of Marsdust, spaceweatherarchive.com, 7 July 2021. Return to text.
  4. Palgrave W.G., Personal narrative of a journey through central and western Arabia, Macmillan and Company, London, p. 168, 1868. Return to text.
  5. Egyptian Worterbuch, Wb 4, 111.1-3. He appears first in the Old Kingdom, in Unas Pyramid texts (PT 215§219). Return to text.
  6. Gandz, S., The zodiacal light in ancient Hebrew literature, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 9:5–50, 1938 | doi.org/10.2307/3622087. Return to text.
  7. Gandz, S., The zodiacal light in Semitic mythology, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 13:1–39, 1943 | doi.org/10.2307/3622289. (Gandz also links Sept with Horus Sothis, and Amen Rā). Return to text.
  8. Kurth, D., Edfou VII, Die Inschriften des Tempels von Edfu, Abteilung I, Ubersetzungen, vol. 2, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2004. Return to text.
  9. Jones, H.D., Zodiacal light and the pyramids, J. British Astron. Assoc. 100(4):162, 1990. Quoted by Thompson, G.D., A brief history of observations of the zodiacal light, members.westnet.com.au, 2019. Return to text.
  10. Dick, S.J., Discovery and Classification in Astronomy: Controversy and Consensus, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 350, 2013. Return to text.
  11. Gandz suggests the verse in Habakkuk has caused translators difficulty, and offers the following: Habakkuk 3:3–5, “God cometh from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran, Selah. His majesty covers the heavens and the earth is full of His glory. And a brightness appeareth like that of the light-pyramid of the dawn. Two horns has He at His side; and there is His mysterious power. Before Him goes the Deber, and the Resheph follows upon His feet.” Return to text.
  12. One AU (Astronomical Unit) is the mean distance from the Sun to Earth, so approx. 150 million km (93 million miles). Return to text.
  13. Witze, A., Opportunity lost: NASA says goodbye to pioneering Mars rover, Nature, 13 February 2019 | doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00575-2. Return to text.
  14. Chaffin, M.S. and 33 others, Martian water loss to space enhanced by regional dust storms, Nature Astronomy 5:1036-1042, 2021 | doi.org/10.1038/s41550-021-01425-w. Return to text.
  15. Rao, R., Even small Mars dust storms dry out the Red Planet, scientists find, space.com, 23 August 2021. Return to text.
  16. Humphreys, R., Water on Mars: a creationist response, creation.com, August 1997; Spencer, W., The origin and history of the Solar System, Proceedings of the 3rd I.C.C., Pittsburgh, PA, pp. 513–523, 1994. Return to text.

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