Ever wish upon a shooting star? If not, Saturday night into Sunday morning you will have the chance to wish on your very own, as the Lyrid meteor shower graces the skies above the United States.
At its peak, up to 20 meteors per hour will spark across the heavens overnight Saturday into Sunday. Though the best viewing will be around 2 a.m. local time Sunday, sporadic shooting stars can be seen anytime it is dark.
The Lyrids last about two weeks — one on either side of the peak — ramping up through the first three weeks of April. The shower is a result of earth passing through a stream of debris left behind by the May 1961 passing of comet Thatcher.
As Earth hurtles through tiny fragments and particulates in space in the wake of the comet, the particulates encounter friction from Earth’s atmosphere. That friction heats them up so much that they start to emit light — producing an instantaneous brilliance we know as a meteor. Surprisingly, most shooting stars we see are only about the size of a grain of rice.
It is just like driving in the summertime. You are hurtling down the highway with the windows down when suddenly — SPLAT! A bug hits your windshield. Then another one. And then another. That is exactly how a meteor shower works. Earth is “driving” through the solar system, and it encounters a “swarm” of debris. The atmosphere vaporizes the shooting star much as your windshield smashes an unlucky insect.
Some meteor showers are known for their fireballs. Those are the overachieving shooting stars that are brighter than Venus. The Lyrids may have a couple mixed in, so a few lucky viewers will get an extra treat.
The Lyrids are commonly referred to as an “appetizer,” preluding the famous Perseid meteor shower in mid-August. That prolific show comes on a warm summer night, often producing rates exceeding 100 meteors per hour. It is rivaled by the Geminid meteor shower in December, known for its brilliant and long-duration green meteors. It is slightly less popular though, given the temperature.
This weekend’s meteors will travel at a moderate clip, close to 30 miles per second. That means they will leave a trail that could last about a second after they burn up in the atmosphere and disintegrate. The dimly lit crescent moon is an added bonus, since we will not have to worry about the fainter meteors being outshined.
Sky conditions will be favorable for viewing in the Northeast and much of the western United States, while widespread cloud cover over the central United States may limit visibility.
Those who want to see the show should bundle up and head to a dark, isolated location. Beaches, ballfields and lakes are ideal, where an absence of trees allows for maximum sky viewing. Of course, make sure this is a safe location, and maybe bring a friend to watch the show! No need for telescopes, cellphones or taking selfies.
Allow your eyes 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Then sit back, relax and enjoy the show.