It’s been practically forever since our last meteor shower. Anyone here recall the early January Quadrantids? After a dry spell of more than 3 months, the Lyrid shower finally steps up to bat. Welcome as a spring shower, they peak this weekend with maximum meteor counts expected late Sunday night through dawn Monday.
Unlike the August Perseids and December Geminids, the Lyrid shower is not a blockbuster. With rates of 10-20 meteors per hour, we might call it modest at best. The shower will appear to originate from a point in the sky southwest of the bright star Vega in the Summer Triangle figure.
Moonlight comes into play during this year’s Lyrids. The waxing gibbous moon sets in the wee hours before dawn, leaving only a 1-2 hour window of dark skies.
The good news? That’s the same time the Lyrid meteor radiant, the point in the sky from which the shower members appear to radiate, is highest.
If you’re game for a look, head out Monday morning April 22 from about 3:30 to 5 a.m. toting a proper cup of tea or coffee. Make sure you’re bundled up for the weather and get cozy in a reclining lawn chair under a blanket or sleeping bag. Some meteor watchers prefer just watching spread-eagled on the ground. Face south or east and enjoy the grand vista of the summer stars and the fun surprise of an occasional meteor.
While the late winter and spring constellations grace the evening sky, if you’re out before dawn, the Earth will have rotated those has-beens off to western horizonland. In the east and south, behold Scorpius, Sagittarius and the Summer Triangle.
Lyrids are the dusty, pebbly debris left behind by Comet Thatcher, discovered by American amateur astronomer A.E. Thatcher in 1861. Every spring for at least the past 2,700 years, Earth has passed through the trail, thrilling countless sky watchers with the sight of flaming dust and grit.
Lyrid meteors strike the upper atmosphere 60 miles overhead at better than 107,000 mph (173,000 km/sec) and burn up in eye-catching flashes. Typical meteoroids – the name given to meteors before they hit the atmosphere – range in size from grains of sand to walnuts. The bigger they are, the brighter.
While Lyrid numbers are modest, the shower occasionally surprises as it did in 687 B.C. when the Chinese reported “stars fell like rain.” More recently in 1982, a brief burst of 90 meteors per hour was observed.
So you never know. The only way to find out what the Lyrids will be up to in 2013 is to be there.