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Sun pillar over England

A sun pillar, visible earlier this month before and up until dawn, from the Northumberland coast in northeast England.

Sun pillar, via Alec Jones.

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When Alec Jones saw this sun pillar before dawn on April 6, 2017, he wasn’t quite sure what it was. He’d heard of the zodiacal light and wondered … could this be it? He wrote:

This shaft of light was visible for around 35 minutes before and up to dawn this morning from the Northumberland coast, northeast England. Would anyone like to confirm that this is zodiacal light or otherwise.

Reasonable question, because – if you’ve never seen either one, or seen them only in photos – you might think there are some similarities in the way these two sky phenomena look. Both extend up from a sunrise or sunset horizon, for example. But the zodiacal light – which is sunlight reflecting off grains of dust in outer space – can only be seen in a truly dark sky. A sun pillar, on the other hand, is likely to be seen shortly after sunset or before sunrise, as Alex saw this one. Sun pillars are strictly an atmospheric phenomenon. They’re formed by reflection by ice crystals drifting through Earth’s air.

Read more: What is a light pillar or sun pillar?

Read more: What is the zodiacal light?

Bottom line: Photo of a sun pillar before sunrise.

Deborah Byrd

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