Tomorrow morning (April 22), the annual Lyrid meteor shower reaches its peak! This medium-strength stream typically delivers about 10-20 meteors per hour from a point in the sky near the bright star Vega. We’ve been showerless since the Quadrantids in early January, and the Lyrids arrive at a most welcome time of year. The warmer weather will take some of the bite out of getting up around 3-4 a.m. to see the shower at its best.
You’re thinking “do I really have to get up that early?” Well, yes and no. The radiant, the point in the sky from which the meteors will appear to stream from, is located in eastern Hercules not quite a fist to the right of Vega. Vega appears low in the northeastern sky around 10’clock local time, so you might see a few Lyrids from 10 till midnight. But the shower maximum occurs the during the morning daylight hours for skywatchers in the Americas, making the hour or two before dawn the best time to see the most meteors. That’s also an ideal time for Lyrid-watching in general because the radiant is almost directly overhead around 4-5 a.m.
If you’re watching before midnight, set up your reclining chair facing east and bring a thick blanket or sleeping bag to stay warm and comfortable. If you’re out before dawn, you can face any direction. Pick the one that offers the darkest sky from your location. You’ll always know you’ve nailed a Lyrid if you follow its path back and discover it points towards Vega.
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 debris trail left by the comet, thrilling countless sky watchers with the sight of incandescent dust and grit. Each fragments strikes the upper atmosphere — 50-75 miles (80-120 km) overhead — at around 107,000 mph (173,000 km/hour) and burns up in a flash.
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 they flare.
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. No big outbursts are expected from this year’s shower, but you never know for sure unless you go out for a look.
Twice a year in April and September, amateur astronomers and astronomy clubs celebrate and share our passion for cosmic things on Astronomy Day. Most clubs will mark the day on April 29 this year, but here in Duluth, we always try to get ahead of the curve.
That’s why the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) Astronomy Club and the Arrowhead Astronomical Society will host the big event tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium on campus. If you’re reading this and live in the Duluth region, please drop by. We’ll have lots of shows, clear weather for sun and Venus viewing, hands-on demonstrations and even food available. All ages are welcome. Click here for more information. See you there!