WASHINGTON, DC, April 21, 2013 – Stargazers will get their best chance to view the annual Lyrid meteor shower tonight, but the nearly full moon may make it difficult to view the fainter meteors. The shower should peak Sunday night and into Monday morning in the hours before dawn in the eastern sky.
Observed by humans for at least 2,600 years, the Lyrid meteor shower is a yearly occurrence, happening between April 16 and 26, when the Earth passes through a trail of debris and dust left by the Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1). The shower gets its name from the constellation Lyra, the harp, from where the meteors seem to radiate.
Observers away from city lights with clear skies usually see from five to 20 meteors per hour, averaging around ten. While the Lyrid shower is considered a “faint stargazing event,” Lyrid meteor storms can occur when the Earth passes through a part of the comet’s dust tail that is thicker with debris. For example, observers in the U.S. in 1982 saw around 100 meteors per hour, as did Greek observers in 1922 and Japanese stargazers in 1945.
No strong meteor storm in predicted for this year, but Bruce McClure at EarthSky reminds us that “Meteor showers are notorious for defying the most careful predictions, and the Lyrids stand as no exception. An outburst of Lyrid meteors is always a possibility.” But not likely.
A problem for observers of the Lyrids this year will be the moon. Tonight there will be a waxing-gibbous moon, 80% illuminated, which should wash out the fainter meteors.
How to view the Lyrid meteor shower:
Timing: The best time to view the Lyrids will be late tonight (Sunday) in the short time after the moon has set and before the sun rises. You can calculate local moonset here.
Location: Since the moon’s light will be especially strong this year, it is important to get away from city lights and find clear skies. Dark Sky Finder is a website that shows light pollution in and around North American cities. Clear Sky Chart is a 48-hour astronomer’s forecast that can predict whether the sky will be clear and dark at a certain place.
Where to look: NASA scientists suggest not looking directly at Lyra, but to lie comfortably back and gaze at all parts of the sky. Observers should watch for persistent strains, tails of ionized gas that will glow for a few seconds after about one in four Lyrid meteor has passed.
Patience: The Lyrid meteor shower is not considered a major shower, so observers should not get their hopes up too high. Ten to 20 meteors per hour can mean three to six minutes between meteors.
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