Saturday, April 21, 2012

Star Gazers Delight: Lyrid Meteor Shower to Peak This Weekend

May Be Best Show in Years
The Lyrids will put on their best showing overnight on Saturday and into the following morning, when the new moon will be essentially invisible from Earth.

Although the Lyrids usually put on a relatively modest display, astronomers say this April shower has been known to offer a surprise or two.

"Typical hourly rates for the Lyrids can run between 10 and 20 meteors. However, rates as high as a hundred meteors per hour are not uncommon," said Raminder Singh Samra, a resident astronomer at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, Canada.

"On rare occasions there may even be fireballs" — especially bright meteors—"streaking across the sky, too, making it quite a spectacular sight for observers."

The Lyrids are thought to originate from comet Thatcher,* whose 416-year orbit is nearly perpendicular to the plane of the solar system. That means the comet's debris trail doesn't experience many gravitational disturbances from planets, asteroids, and other comets.

Astronomers believe this stable stream of debris may be the reason the Lyrids have been a reliable sky show for centuries.

"Like clockwork every year in April, the Earth passes through the particle stream of this long-periodic comet, which last approached the sun in 1861," Samra said.
image of Lyrid shooting star
click image for more on Lyrid meteor shower

*The Thatcher comet was considered an omen that ushered in the American Civil War. This is an interesting story in itself:
In early July of 1861 being the brightest comet in half a century, Thatcher appeared in the region of Ursa Major – the Big Dipper.  It stretched for 100 degrees across the sky, with both head and tail visible simultaneously in broad daylight. At the time Thatcher’s Comet was widely regarded as an evil omen:  the New York Herald reported that people “regard it with fear, looking upon it as something terrible, bringing in its train wars and desolation.”

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