Sky watchers (such as me) are in for a rare treat this weekend. Sky conditions permitting, the annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks with the best observing between midnight and dawn Saturday night/Sunday morning. But that’s not all, celestially speaking. Saturn is just a week from opposition (i.e., directly opposite the sun with Earth in between) such that Saturn’s rings are at an optimal angle for viewing - even with a small telescope as the planet rides high in the sky. Saturn doesn’t reach opposition again until 2017.
What makes this weekend especially exciting (though not likely to make a difference for viewing Saturn) is that it coincides with a new moon - unlike all the major meteor showers in late 2011, which were virtually drowned out by bright moonlight. So exceptional is the coming weekend that NASA scientists say that if you have to choose just one night in April to go out and look at the stars, it should be April 21 (see NASA video).
Should weather conditions hinder the view from your favorite outdoor location, do not despair (I’ll explain later).
The Lyrids are usually a modest shower, featuring 10 to 20 meteors per hour. However, they are known for uncommon and unpredictable surges that can sometimes bring the rate up to 100 per hour, as well as an occasional especially brilliant fireball. One can argue that not knowing what to expect from the Lyrids makes it more enticing to watch rather than risk the disappointment of missing a great show.
The debris trails that spawn the Lyrid meteors were shed by a comet known as C/1861 G1 Thatcher at least 2,500 years ago. The debris is mostly just tiny specks of dust that hit Earth’s atmosphere at almost 110,000 mph. The specks of dust vaporize when striking the atmosphere, leaving behind the streaks we see as meteors. The Lyrids are so named because they appear to originate from the constellation Lyra the Harp.
Lyra, which will rise in the northeast at about 10 p.m. and sit almost directly overhead around midnight, is most easily identified by the exceptionally bright star, Vega. After midnight, when the odds for seeing meteors is greatest, Lyra will be about halfway between the horizon and the zenith (straight up) toward the southwest. From Astronomy.com:
“As dawn approaches, look about two-thirds of the way from the horizon toward the zenith in any direction. But don’t get tunnel vision staring at one location. Let your eyes wander, and peripheral vision can pick up meteors you otherwise might not see. Another no-no — don’t stare directly at the radiant. Although all of a shower’s meteors appear to emanate from this spot, any meteor you see there will be just a point of light. All other things being equal, the farther away from the radiant a meteor streaks, the longer its trail will be.”
If the weather does not cooperate late Saturday night/early Sunday – or if it’s just too much to get yourself outdoors at a good vantage point (preferably as far away from city light pollution at possible) - there is the option of staying “‘Up All Night’ With NASA!” Several experts will answer questions about the Lyrids during the live web chat from 11 p.m. Saturday to 5 a.m. Sunday. A live video feed of the Lyrid meteor shower will be embedded in the web chat, including views being streamed from the All Sky Camera Network. The chat also will include video from a camera attached to a balloon - a vantage point well above any clouds - launched by about a dozen students from California.
Also of note, NASA scientists, amateur astronomers and an astronaut on the International Space Station will try to caputre the first-ever 3-D photograhs of meteors from Earth and space.
Personal note on Saturn: I remember when I was about 15 years old viewing Saturn for the first time through a toy Gilbert telescope. Amazingly, I could actually see the rings of Saturn, an event that turned me on to amateur astronomy.
It turns out that my experience was not an unusual one. I’ve heard from quite a few whose first sight of Saturn and its rings was what turned them on to astronomy. While you can’t come close to Hubble-like quality from a backyard telescope, with a reasonably good quality 4”-or-larger reflector (mine is 6”) you’ll likely find as I did there’s nothing better than seeing the real thing with your own eyes (except maybe experiencing a blizzard, for this snow lover at least).
Saturn will be east to southeast after dusk and toward the south at midnight in the constellation Virgo – essentially visible all night. Those with telescopes will be able to see the rings, which are composed of dust and tiny pieces of water ice believed to be only 30 feet (10 meters) thick on average.