Lyrid meteor shower peaks this weekend: its brush with history

The Lyrid meteor shower peaks this weekend on the night of April 21-22, says the American Meteor Society  and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada . Under a dark sky, the shower might spray 10 to 20 meteors an hour.  However, the gibbous moon – in its glorious illumination – is likely to impede viewing and you may see substantially fewer.

You may spot some stray Lyrids for a few days before and after the peak. If you’re determined enough to hunt Lyrids with a vexing moon in the heavens, park yourself away from urban or suburban light.

On it’s annual journey around the sun, Earth passes through many meteor streams. Comets are but dirty snowballs, filled with ancient ice and cosmic dirt. When they pass the sun, dust and gas fall away from the comet and dusty trails get left behind.  Thus, these residue rivers are the dusty, remnant paths of long-gone comets.

When Earth runs into cometary trails, the dust particles smack our atmosphere, burn up and offer the cosmic light show – meteors!

This weekend’s shooting stars appear to emanate from the constellation Lyra, hence the name Lyrid meteors. The constellation ascends the north-northeast heavens before 10 p.m. on Sunday night, but reaches appreciable height between 11 p.m. and midnight.

On Sunday night into Monday morning, the bright moon likely washes many shooting stars. The moon will be 11 days old and about 83 percent illuminated. At sunset on Sunday, the gibbous moon loiters high in the south-southeast, at a very bright -11 magnitude. It sets at about 3:40 a.m. on Monday morning.

Here’s a short video on the 2013 Lyrids from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore:

A little sense of history

This comet from which the meteor shower originates seems to have a knack for historical timing.

The winds of a civil war swirled from Boston to Washington to the southern states on April 4, 1861.

One man in New York City – A. E. Thatcher – gazed to the pristine, night heavens to discover the brightening, fuzzy cotton ball of a comet.  Eventually the comet would be officially named for him. Not until later would astronomers  connect it as the parent of the annual Lyrid meteor shower.

Barely a week after Thatcher discovered that comet, the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, igniting the Civil War.

At the same time, the U.S. Naval Observatory astronomer John Ferguson spied the comet from Washington and sent a confirmation to the Royal Astronomical Society in London. Ferguson’s dispatch was dated April 12, 1861 – the first night of the Sumter bombardment. It was printed in the society’s monthly astronomical bulletin.

Thatcher obviously had also reported the new comet to the Royal Astronomical Society, as well. In fact, John Herschel – the noted scientist and astronomer – responded personally with a kind note:

“Sir: I duly received your notice of the comet you discovered, which, after some time, became conspicuous enough here to be seen with the naked eye; and I beg leave to congratulate you on this result of your skill and diligence.  I observe that the first discovery is attributed to you in the notice of the Astronomical Society. I hope it will be followed by many more instances of success in this and other lines of astronomical discovery. Believe me, etc., etc., Sir, with much respect, your obedient servant.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory keeps a comet database and it says the Lyrids’ parent Comet Thatcher returns every 415 years. This comet certainly senses history, since its last visit ushered in the Civil War. Comet Thatcher next returns to celebrate America’s quincentennial in 2276.

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