Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight

Apr 22, 2011, 08:41 by Danielle Bodnar

The annual Lyrid meteor shower will peak on Friday night, according to National Geographic Daily News.

"Considered a minor but pretty show, the Lyrids generally produce up to 20 meteors per hour," Raminder Singh Samra, a resident astronomer at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, Canada, told National Geographic.

"However, they have been historically noted to produce meteor storms, when hundreds of meteors are visible per hour. The Lyrids have also been known to produce fireball meteors--generally rare events." Fireballs appear when relatively large pieces of space rock burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

For the Lyrids, the meteor trails appear to radiate from near the brilliant star Vega in the shower's namesake constellation, Lyra.

"Look for Lyra in the east a couple of hours after sunset," Samra said. "It looks like a parallelogram with a smaller triangle connected to one of the corners--the bright star Vega forms one of the tips of the triangle."

By the peak of the shower, in the predawn hours of Saturday, Vega will be shining nearly overhead for stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere.

In Southern Hemisphere skies, the apparent point of origin will be at or below the horizon, revealing just a sprinkling of meteors.

Unfortunately, during this year's peak the waning gibbous moon will rise around 1 a.m. local time. The gibbous phase is just a few days shy of a full moon, so the lunar glare will block out all but the brightest meteors.

"As with all meteor showers, the best place to catch them is far away from all the light pollution surrounding cities," Samra said.

"But if you can't get away, seek out a dark urban park and get your eyes dark-adapted. The process of dark adaptation can take up to a half hour and will result in many more meteors being visible. However, simple stray light from a street light or cell phone can ruin dark-adapted eyes in seconds."

As with most other annual meteor showers, the Lyrids are thought to be caused by sand grain-size debris left over from a passing comet. When a comet gets close to the sun, its ices vaporize, releasing dust grains and sometimes small lumps of rock. This debris trail then settles into orbit around the sun.

As Earth passes through a comet's particle trail, the dust burns up in our atmosphere, creating the bright streaks we see as meteors. Astronomers think the Lyrids are tied to C/1861 G1 Thatcher, a comet discovered in 1861 that takes 400 years to orbit the sun.

Acoording to some astronomers, tonight's meteor shower may show plenty of shooting stars, if the Earth passes right through the comet's dust trail. But, as for all meteor showers, the only way to know how good the Lyrids' show will be this year is to go outside on Friday night and look up.