Look Up Tonight! The Lyrids Meteor Shower Is Set to Stun!

Look up tonight and you’ll see a waning crescent Moon, and, every few minutes, shooting stars falling from the sky. The Lyrids meteor shower peaks on April 21, and if light pollution is low in your area, you can expect to see around 10 meteors per hour—maybe more if you escape to the countryside.

WHAT IS GOING ON UP THERE?

The Lyrids—named for the constellation Lyra from which they seem to originate—are the happy result of the Earth slamming into the debris of the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher (named after its discoverer, not the former British prime minister). But don’t worry: Thatcher isn’t a danger! As it flies about its four-century-long orbit around the Sun, particles fall away. It’s perfectly normal shedding, resulting in an annual evening-time spectacular.

Thatcher is a long-period comet; such comets have orbits longer than 200 years. At aphelion—that is, its farthest point from the Sun—Thatcher is at a distance of 110 astronomical units (AU). To put this in perspective, the distance from the Sun to the Earth is 1 AU. The distance from the Sun to Pluto is about 40 AU. The very farthest-known natural, observable object in the solar system, V774104, is presently 103 AU. So Thatcher has put in a lot of work to make tonight's light show happen. I hope you appreciate it. This meteor shower is 415 years and 21,225,138,770 miles in the making. If that’s not good enough for you, nothing is.

HOW DO I SEE THE LYRIDS?

Sometimes, the Lyrids deliver a mind-blowing show. Its first reported occurrence was reportedly so bright and busy that it drowned out the stars. In 1982, it reached 90 meteors an hour. Ordinarily, however, the meteor shower produces five to 20 meteors every hour. Don’t miss this chance to see them, because when it comes to dust-sized cometary particles vaporizing in Earth’s atmosphere at 30,000 miles per hour, you just never know how good the show will be.

The best time to see the Lyrids will be after midnight until just before dawn. While you wait, check out Jupiter, bright and unblinking in the south. If you have a telescope handy, or even a reasonably powered set of binoculars, you’ll easily see four of its moons: Europa, Ganymede, Io, and Callisto. You can also see Saturn to the southeast (though this isn’t the best time for viewing it). As dawn approaches, look east and you’ll see Venus up there, as bright as ever. (It reaches greatest brilliancy on April 30.)

To enjoy the Lyrids meteor shower, you won’t need binoculars or a telescope or anything, really, but a blanket and patience. Since it’s a Friday night, bring a bottle of wine. You’re not going to live forever. Because the Moon will be but a sliver, it won’t wash out the sky with moonlight. So Thatcher and the Moon are doing the heavy lifting here. All you have to do is show up and wait.

Science Finds a Better Way to Calculate 'Dog Years'

thegoodphoto/iStock via Getty Images
thegoodphoto/iStock via Getty Images

Anyone who has ever owned a pet is likely familiar with the concept of “dog years,” which suggests that one year for a dog is like seven years for a human. Using this conversion metric, a 2-year-old dog is akin to a high school freshman, while a 10-year-old dog is ready for an assisted living facility.

If that seems rather arbitrary, that’s because it is. But now, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have come to a more data-based measurement on dog aging through DNA.

The paper, published on the preprint server bioRxiv, based the finding on DNA methylation, a process in which molecules called methyl groups attach themselves to DNA and serve as an indicator of aging. Generally speaking, the older living beings get, the faster the rate of methylation. In the study, 104 Labrador retrievers were examined, with subjects ranging from 1 month to 16 years old. The results of their DNA methylation were compared to human profiles. While the rate of methylation tracked closely between the two—young and old dogs had similar rates to young and old people—adolescent and mature dogs experienced more accelerated aging.

Their recommended formula for comparing dog and human aging? Multiply the natural logarithm of a dog’s age by 16, then add 31. Or, just use this calculator. Users will see that a 2-year-old dog, for example, wouldn’t be the canine equivalent of a 14-year-old. It would be equivalent to 42 human years old and should probably start putting money into a 401(k). But because methylation slows considerably in mid-life, a 5-year-old dog is approximately a 57-year-old human, while a 6-year-old dog is nearing 60 in human years—a minor difference. Things level out as the dog gets much older, with a 10-year-old dog nearing a 70-year-old human.

Different breeds age at different rates, so the formula might not necessarily apply to other dog breeds—only Labs were studied. The work is awaiting peer review, but it does offer a promising glimpse into how our furry companions grow older.

[h/t Live Science]

Sssspectacular: Tree Snakes in Australia Can Actually Jump

sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images
sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images

Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is common among humans. We avoid snakes in the wild, have nightmares about snakes at night, and recoil at snakes on television. We might even be born with the aversion. When researchers showed babies photos of snakes and spiders, their tiny pupils dilated, indicating an arousal response to these ancestral threats.

If you really want to scare a baby, show them footage of an Australian tree snake. Thanks to researchers at Virginia Tech, we now know these non-venomous snakes of the genus Dendrelaphis can become airborne, propelling themselves around treetops like sentient Silly String.

That’s Dendrelaphis pictus, which was caught zipping through the air in 2010. After looking at footage previously filmed by her advisor Jake Socha, Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michelle Graham headed for Australia and built a kind of American Ninja Warrior course for snakes out of PVC piping and tree branches. Graham observed that the snakes tend to spot their landing target, then spring upward. The momentum gets them across gaps that would otherwise not be practical to cross.

Graham next plans to investigate why snakes feel compelled to jump. They might feel a need to escape, or continue moving, or do it because they can. Two scientific papers due in 2020 could provide answers.

Dendrelaphis isn’t the only kind of snake with propulsive capabilities. The Chrysopelea genus includes five species found in Southeast Asia and China, among other places, that can glide through the air.

[h/t National Geographic]

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