Lyrid meteor shower graces the planet on Earth Day

A bright Lyrid meteor streaks across the northwestern sky in this photo taken during the last peak on April 22, 2013. Credit: John Chumack

We celebrate Earth Day this upcoming Tuesday, a time to reflect on how each of us can better our environment. It also happens to be the peak of the annual Lyrid meteor shower.

The Lyrids reliably shoot from the sky every mid to late April, peaking overnight April 21-22 this year. I’ve seen the Lyrids on a couple occasions and can vouch that it’s a reliable though not particularly rich meteor shower. Normal rates are 10 to 20 meteors per hour, but light from the last quarter moon will reduce this year’s count to 5-10 per hour.

This map shows the sky facing east around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning April 22 when the radiant will be lower but still up before moonrise. Stellarium

The greatest number of meteors are seen when the radiant, the point in the sky from which they appear to stream, is highest. That occurs just before dawn Tuesday morning. But because the moon doesn’t rise until 2-2:30 a.m., you might do just as well catching the Lyrids from midnight till 2. The radiant will be moderately high in the east and the sky still dark.

The Lyrid radiant is much higher around 4 a.m. when the moon will also be up. Skywatchers take note! The moon will be very close to the third magnitude star Beta Capricorni. Those living in the western half of the U.S. will see it covered up or occulted by the moon around 4:30 a.m. MDT / 3:30 a.m. PDT. The event will be visible in 10x binoculars and small telescopes. Stellarium

While the Lyrids implies an association with the constellation Lyra, home to the brilliant star Vega, the meteors shoot from a location in eastern Hercules 7 degrees southwest of Vega. Each one you see is small bit of dust or rock left behind by Comet Thatcher which last appeared in 1861 and won’t again until 2276.

Voyager 1, which has crossed into interstellar space, is traveling at 38,000 miles an hour or about 1/3 the speed of a Lyrid meteor. Credit: NASA

Each April, Earth passes through Thatcher’s stream of debris and we see the pieces flare as meteors when they strike the air overhead.

Their average speed is 105,000 mph (169,000 km/hr). That’s almost 3 times faster than the current fastest moving spacecraft in the solar system, Voyager 1, at 38,000 mph (61,000 km/hr).

Not a major shower, the Lyrids still occasionally surprise with fireballs and rich outbursts of meteors. Counts were much higher than normal in 1803, 1849, 1850, 1884, 1922, 1945, and 1982. Both Ludwig von Beethoven and famous astronomer William Herschel were around for the 1803 Lyrids which topped out at more than 500 per hour!

NASA’s All Sky Fireball Network detected more than 30 Lyrids as bright as Venus on the nights around the shower’s peak last April 22. Their orbits, shown here in green, neatly intersect the Earth (red splat). “The purple ellipse is the orbit of Comet Thatcher,” adds Bill Cooke, lead scientist for the Office. “The orbits of the comet and the meteoroids match up nicely.” Credit: NASA

To watch the shower, either take the ‘early shift’ from midnight-2:30 a.m. and face east or dare to challenge the moon between 2 and dawn when Hercules and Vega are high in southern sky. I usually spice up my meteor watching with a look through the telescope at the bright planets. Mars shines due south now around midnight with Saturn further off to the southeast.

One final note. The moon will be very close to the star Beta in Capricornus Tuesday morning. Take a look at it in binoculars. If you live in the western half of the U.S., Beta will be occulted by the moon around 4:30 a.m. Mountain time, 3:30 a.m. Pacific. Midwesterners might still see it in bright twilight around 5:30 a.m. with a small telescope. Look immediately to the left of east of the moon’s bright edge.

Invite a friend to join you, boil up some tea and relax under the stars. Every meteor you see is a gift.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

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