Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks on Earth Day
Welcome to the 2016 Lyrid meteor shower! It peaks on Earth Day this year (April 22). Look up at the sky early before dawn tomorrow or after dark tomorrow night, and if conditions are good, you might see 10 to 20 meteors per hour.
THE SOURCE OF THE SHOW
For the most part, meteor showers are named for the constellations from which they seem to emerge. In this case, it's Lyra, a constellation generally rendered as a vulture carrying a lyre (which is a kind of U-shaped harp). In Greek mythology, the lyre, played by the god Orpheus, was able to induce sleep in the sirens, aiding Jason and the Argonauts in their escape from Colchis, golden fleece in tow.
The meteor shower is produced by debris from comet Thatcher, which is named for its discoverer, A.E. Thatcher, who spotted it in 1861. Thatcher is a "long period comet," which means it takes longer than 200 years to orbit the Sun. (It completes one orbit every 415 years.) As it moves along its way, it leaves behind a trail of debris that happens to intersect with the orbit of the Earth. When we cross into it, we get an annual show. Don't be fooled by the giant streaks of light zipping across the night sky: the Lyrids shower is produced by very small particles—specks of dust and tiny grains of sand. What the comet detritus lack in size, they make up for in speed. The particles slam into our atmosphere at 100,000 mph. The beautiful "falling stars" that you see are debris burning up as they approach the Earth.
HOW TO CATCH IT
The first recorded instance of the Lyrids meteor shower appeared in 687 BCE in the Chinese work Zuo Zhuan, which described it as an evening when the "stars fell like rain." Because of light pollution, you shouldn't expect quite the same experience. Your best bet for catching the show might mean checking with your local astronomy club. This week's pink mini-moon isn't going to help with your meteor watching experience, either, as its light will wash out the sky.
If you need an alternate way of catching the show, Slooh will broadcast a live feed of the show using a network of participating observatories. The stream will also feature commentary by astronomers. Likewise, NASA TV will feature the event. If you're going to chance it yourself, grab a blanket, a cooler of beer (or a thermos of coffee), a few lawn chairs, and head for the darkest spot in (or outside of) town. The best times for viewing on April 22 will be in the predawn hours and at night beginning around 10:30 p.m. ET, and again in the early morning of April 23. There are few better ways to spend an evening celebrating the Earth than by observing the wonders that make our little corner of the cosmos special.