How to see the Earth Day Lyrid meteor shower
Friday, April 21, 2017, 2:41 - The annual Lyrid Meteor Shower will be putting on a show for Earth Day this weekend, and here's your guide to when and where to see it.
On the nights of Friday, April 21 and Saturday, April 22 stargazers may be able to catch a few meteors during the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower.
This meteor shower typically is not one of the strongest of the year, as it only delivers about 15-20 meteors per hour, under ideal conditions (compared to the Quadrantids, Perseids and Geminids, which can produce 100+ an hour!).
It's still well worth the effort to see this shower, though, because the meteors tend to be fairly bright, and some even produce produce fireballs in the night sky.
The radiant of the meteor shower (the point in the sky where the meteors appear to radiate out from) rises at roughly 9 p.m., local time, and can be spotted near Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra.
The position of the Lyrid meteor shower radiant, in the East, at roughly midnight, April 21-22. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland
The absolute peak of the shower is expected for 12 UTC on Saturday morning, or around 8 a.m. ET, which means that the pre-dawn hours of Earth Day will likely be the best time to watch for American stargazers. Meteor activity could still be good enough on Saturday night to catch a few then, as well.
Unlike in 2016, when the light of the Full Moon washed out many of the faint meteors from this shower, this year, the phase of the Moon - a waning crescent - is much more favourable for meteor viewing. The crescent Moon will not rise above the horizon until very early Saturday morning, in the hours just before sunrise, so it should not present a problem at all for viewing this meteor shower.
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What's going on here?
The Lyrid meteor shower is produced as Earth passes through a stream of debris, left behind in the orbit of a comet known as C/1861 G1 (Thatcher). Comet Thatcher takes a VERY long time to go around the Sun - the last time it went by was in 1861, and it will do so again around the year 2280 - but as it does, it passes fairly close to Earth. It's not close enough to be a danger to us, but close enough that the tiny particles of ice and rock - meteoroids - that it leaves behind in its wake can be swept up by Earth as we go around the Sun.
When that happens, these meteoroids plunge into the atmosphere, travelling at speeds of between tens to hundreds of thousands of kilometres per hour. At that speed, they compress the air molecules in their path together with such force that the air molecules heat up and glow. This glow is what we call a meteor, and the bigger the meteoroid, the greater the force it exerts, and thus the brighter the meteor glows.
In many cases, the heat from the air molecules simply burns away the meteoroid, making for a very short-lived meteor. For some meteoroids, though - the larger ones or the ones made of tougher stuff - they survive the heat and slow down enough where they cannot compress the air enough to make it glow. At this point, they enter what's known as "dark flight" and fall to the ground, to become a meteorite.
Will we be able to see it?
Seeing a meteor shower in action requires a certain amount of forethought.
Getting out from under light polluted urban night skies is a must, as the competing lights from the ground will make it impossible to see any but the brightest meteors or fireballs. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has a list of Dark Sky Sites on their website.
Even after escaping to darker skies, anyone watching will need to let their eyes adjust to the dark. So, for roughly 30-45 minutes, avoid looking at any bright light sources, including a smartphone or car headlights. If you must use your phone, switching it to "night mode," so that it displays in the red end of the spectrum of light, rather than the blues, will help. When your eyes are completely adjusted, it will make the meteors much easier to see.
Crucially, though, the skies not only need to be dark, but at least reasonably clear, as well. Here are the forecast sky conditions for Friday night to Saturday morning:
Are there other ways to watch?
Yes! If your skies are clouded over during the best times to watch, try heading over to Slooh.com, to watch their livestream show of the shower. Their broadcast begins at 8 p.m. ET, Friday, April 21.
Also, try watching the meteors on radar. It doesn't show you the glowing streaks in the sky, but its fascinating to watch meteoroids show up as multicoloured peaks in these scrolling, auto-updating 3D radar graphs.
If you see any meteors, report in! Let us know what you saw in the comments below!