Published: 2014-04-21 05:31:00
Updated: 2014-04-23 09:05:56
Posted April 21, 2014
Updated April 23, 2014
By Tony Rice
The Lyrid meteor shower peaks this week as the Earth passes through debris left more than 400 years ago by long period Comet C/1861 Thatcher.
While not as spectacular as August’s Perseids or January’s Quadrantids, which are known to produce 50 to 100 meteors per hour, the Lyrids are expected to display around 10 per hour.
Lyrids meteors have been known to make up for their low numbers with brilliant glowing trails of ionized gas for seconds after they fall.
Clear skies are expected Wednesday night into Thursday, not long after the shower’s peak. Look to the northeast around 11 p.m to see the show.
Meteors will appear to originate from a point near Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Vega and in that part of the sky. Viewing will be best between midnight, as we rotate into the stream of debris from the comet, until about 3 a.m. with the waning crescent moon rises.
The Lyrids are the oldest known of the meteor showers. Chinese historians wrote that “stars dropped down like rain“ in 687 B.C. Mathematician Johann Gottfried Galle determined in 1867 the Lyrids as the source. In 1803, a rare outburst of 1000+ per hour was chronicled in newspapers from Nova Scotia to North Carolina. A letter to the Virginia Gazette on April 23, 1803 described the shower:
“From one until three, those starry meteor seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets.”
While there are no indications that 2014’s Lyrids will be much different than the average of 10 per hour, clear skies and the late rising moon make it worth a look.
Reports from members of the Chapel Hill astronomy club observing the Lyrids earlier this week are that number of visible meteors was about as expected (average of about 10 an hour, depending on how dark your skies are). However, some of the meteors are quite bright, leaving long streaks across the sky and traveling very fast.
Tonight's forecast continues to include clear skies and viewing between midnight and 3 a.m. is best.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.