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.
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.
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.