Exploring with a camera can be a lot of fun. Earlier this week at full moon, I drove over to a nearby pond to shoot a few pictures of the moon rising among a row of balsam firs. Unfortunately I got there too late – the moon was already much brighter than the surrounding landscape. In that situation, you either get a scene with a very overexposed moon or an excellent picture of the moon with no scene.
At the time, a couple mallards taking off and landing in the pond drew my attention to the moon’s reflection on the water. When a mallard landed, the waves that followed broke up the pure reflection of the lunar disk into glittering path of light. As the waves spread and flattened, the water’s surface resumed its calm and the moon reassembled itself into a disk. It was a beautiful thing to see.
In the photo above, you can make out a few gross details in the moon’s reflection like the white-colored lunar highlands and the darker lunar seas. If you’ve ever photographed the sun or moon’s reflection in a body of water, you’ll discover that even though the water might only be 50 feet away, the reflections of celestial bodies are essentially at infinity. Focus on the nearby water or shore and the still reflection of moon will appear slightly out of focus. If you focus instead on the moon, nearby objects will be ‘soft’ or out of focus.
Tonight and especially tomorrow night, Earth will pass through the orbit of Comet Thatcher and encounter dribs and drabs of dust and grit left behind during its passes through the inner solar system. These small cometary grains will strike our atmosphere at around 108,000 miles per hour, burn up and flash as meteors.
The modest shower is called the Lyrids after the constellation Lyra. As we pass through the comet’s path, the meteors will appear to radiate from a point in the sky near Vega. If you do see a meteor you suspect belongs to Comet Thatcher, trace its path backward. If it points to Lyra, you’ve got a winner.
Unlike the more robust Perseid shower of summer, the Lyrids toss only about 15 meteors per hour our way under ideal conditions. While the shower is active all week, activity will pick up tonight and then peak Friday night into Saturday morning.
The best time for Lyrid watching is when Lyra’s up in the east before the moon rises. Tonight (tomorrow really) moonrise occurs around 12:45 a.m. and almost an hour later on Saturday morning. That gives us a nice window between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. to take advantage of the dark sky. Meteors will still zip by in the morning hours, but moonlight will compromise their number.
Take a thermos of hot chocolate and set up a chair facing east. With a blanket for warmth and a positive outlook, you just might catch a Lyrid or two.