Night Lights: Aurora, Noctilucent Clouds, and the Zodiacal Light
Comet NEOWISE flies high above a batch of noctilucent clouds in this photo from Wikimedia contributor Brwynog. 
License and source: CC BY-SA 4.0
Have you spotted any “night lights”? These phenomena brighten dark skies with celestial light ranging from mild to dazzling: the subtle light pyramid of the zodiacal light, the eerie twilight glow of noctilucent clouds, and most famous of all, the wildly unpredictable and mesmerizing aurora.

Aurora, often referred to as the northern lights (aurora borealis) or southern lights (aurora australis), can indeed be a wonderful sight, but the beautiful photos and videos shared online are often misleading. For most observers not near polar latitudes, auroral displays are relatively rare and faint, and without much structure, more gray than colorful, and show up much better in photos. However, geomagnetic storms can create auroras that dance and shift rapidly across the skies with several distinct colors and appear to observers much further away from the poles - on very rare occasions even down to the mid-latitudes of North America! Geomagnetic storms are caused when a magnetic storm on our Sun creates a massive explosion that flings a mass of particles away from its surface, known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). If Earth is in the path of this CME, its particles interact with our planet’s magnetic field and result in auroral displays high up in our ionosphere. As we enter our Sun’s active period of its 11-year solar cycle, CMEs become more common and increase the chance for dazzling displays! If you have seen any aurora, you can report your sighting to the Aurorasaurus citizen science program at
A series of six panels showing the same dark horizon, but with different brilliant green auroral shapes twisting and moving around in each panel in various shapes and patterns.A sampling of some of the various patterns created by aurora, as seen from Iceland in 2014. The top row photos were barely visible to the unaided eye and were exposed for 20-30 seconds; in contrast, the bottom row photos were exposed for just 4 seconds- and were clearly visible to the photographer, Wikimedia contributor Shnuffel2022.
License and source: CC BY-SA 4.0

Have you ever seen wispy clouds glowing an eclectic blue after sunset, possibly towards your west or northwest? That wasn’t your imagination; those luminescent clouds are noctilucent clouds (also called Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMC)). They are thought to form when water vapor condenses around ‘seeds’ of dust from vaporized meteorites - along with other sources that include rocket launches and volcanic eruptions - around 50 miles high in the mesosphere. Their glow is caused by the Sun, whose light still shines at that altitude after sunset from the perspective of ground-based observers. Noctilucent clouds are increasing both in frequency and in how far south they are observed, a development that may be related to climate change. Keeping in mind that observers closer in latitude to the poles have a better chance of spotting them, your best opportunity to spot noctilucent clouds occurs from about half an hour to two hours after sunset during the summer months. NASA’s AIM mission studies these clouds from its orbit high above the North Pole:
A faint pyramid of light extends from the bottom right, above the horizon, to the top left. Stars fill the night time landscape, including the star cluster of the Pleiades on the upper left, touching the pyramid of zodiacal light.
The zodiacal light as seen in the evening of March 1, 2021 above Skull Valley. Utah. The Pleiades star cluster (M45) is visible near the top.
Credit and source: NASA/Bill Dunford

You may have seen the zodiacal light without even realizing it; there is a reason it’s nicknamed the “false dawn”! Viewers under dark skies have their best chance of spotting this pyramid of ghostly light a couple of hours after sunset around the spring equinox, or a couple of hours before dawn around the autumnal equinox. Unlike our previous two examples of night lights, observers closer to the equator are best positioned to view the zodiacal light! Long known to be composed of interplanetary dust orbiting in the plane of our solar system reflecting sunlight, these fine particles were thought to originate from comets and asteroids. However, scientists from NASA’s Juno mission recently published a fascinating study indicating a possible alternative origin: dust from Mars! Learn more about their serendipitous discovery at:

Curious about the latest research into these night lights? Find news of NASA’s latest discoveries at

You can find a printer-ready version of this article on our Night Sky Notes resource page every month, free to share with your club newsletter, website, or even local paper!

Additional Skywatching Resources

Plan your skywatching with help from our planner page, featuring daily stargazing tips courtesy EarthSky monthly sky maps, and videos from NASA/JPL. You can even find out how to spot the International Space Station! Both Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines offer regular stargazing guides to readers, both in print and online. Want to join a group of folks for a star party? Find clubs and astronomy events near you, and may you have clear skies!
Last Updated: April 21,2022
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