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One winter morning as I was driving to work, I looked to the east, and the Sun was about 20° above the horizon. A solid bright column of light came straight down from it to the horizon. What causes this, what is it called, and is this related to any archaeological finds such as the obelisks of Egypt?

John Dally
Colorado Springs, Colorado

ASYSK1017_02
This Sun pillar was captured about 20 miles (35 kilometers) from Lisbon, Portugal, on April 26, 2010. The photographer was struck by the pillar’s height and its white color.
Miguel Claro
What you saw was an optical effect called a Sun pillar, also sometimes called a light pillar. And although the Sun is usually the object associated with light pillars, they also can originate with the Moon or even bright terrestrial lights.

Tiny six-sided ice crystals slowly falling through the atmosphere create the effect. As they fall, the crystals align themselves parallel to the horizon, in effect simulating a colossal mirror made of billions of individual pieces. Wind moving the crystals causes the reflected light to stretch into a column.

You saw the pillar below the Sun. But pillars also occur that are above it or the Moon. Indeed, either of these celestial objects can be below the horizon while still creating pillars. And pillars formed by earthbound lights (which sit on the horizon) are always seen above the lights.

Indeed, some Egyptologists believe that Sun pillars were the inspiration for the great obelisks created by that culture in the same way that crepuscular rays inspired them to construct the pyramids. For more about this, see “Stargazing in ancient Egypt,” by Patricia Blackwell Gary and Richard Talcott, in the June 2006 issue of Astronomy.

Michael E. Bakich   
Senior Editor
  
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