Image credit: Robin Loznak

Even more rewarding than watching a night sky full of sparkling constellations is the moment you witness a star “fall” from the sky and disappear. Even if you know that the streak of light was in fact a tiny speck of dust burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere, you cannot help but marvel at our splendid Universe.

 

At certain times of year, we may be lucky enough to witness a shower of these short-lived tails of light, called meteors, as our Earth passes through the debris left by various comets. We give these showers different names, depending on the constellations from which they seem to originate (the word “seem” should be emphasized because the meteors burn up at about 60 miles [100 kilometers] above the Earth, and the constellations are light-years away).

 

Starting tomorrow, from April 16 until April 25, the Earth will be passing through the tail of Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1), bringing us our annual Lyrid meteor shower. The last time Comet Thatcher crossed the inner solar system was in 1861. The next time will be in 2276.

 

Lyrid meteors appear to emerge from the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp. Vega, a blue-white star, about three times as massive as our sun, is 25 light years from Earth. About 12,000 years ago, Vega, also known as “The Harp Star” or “Falling Eagle”, served as our Northern Pole Star and will do so again around the year 13,727.

 

The Lyrid meteor shower is one of the oldest known meteor showers, with records going back 2,700 years. The Lyrid meteors (about 10-20 meteors per hour) are almost as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper, but not as abundant in number as in the Perseids (50-100 per hour). But every so often, when the Earth goes through an unusually dense clump of comet debris, as it did in 1982, we might observe an impressive burst of almost 100 meteors per hour.

 

This year the shower peak will be on April 22, and the best time for watching it will be in the dark hours before dawn. Remember that meteors can appear in any part of the sky, but their trails will point back toward Vega, one of the brightest stars in the northern celestial hemisphere.


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