With springtime well underway, stargazers are beginning to retreat from the blinding lights of large cities to enjoy the sky in its true splendor. And what a great time to begin searching for falling or shooting stars, which are known to astronomers as meteors.
I’m always amazed at folks’ surprised reactions when they spot one.
Meteors are really not all that uncommon; on any clear dark night, the average person should be able to spot three or four every hour if they’re paying attention.
But then there are times of the year when one can see more than usual, all appearing to fall from roughly the same direction, and we’re treated to a meteor shower.
The most famous of all meteor showers is the Perseids in mid-August. True, it’s quite a dramatic show, but I suspect it’s a favorite because it occurs during midsummer when people are outdoors late at night and can see it conveniently.
There’s no need to wait until August, however, since meteor showers occur many times throughout the year. In fact, next weekend features the Lyrids shower. It should reach its peak before dawn on Saturday, April 22, but stargazers might just catch sight of a few meteors flashing across the heavens the night before.
The Lyrids shower occurs when the Earth slams into the dusty debris expelled by the ancient Comet Thatcher. And, as dramatic as a meteor might appear, most are specks no larger than a sand grain that plummet into our atmosphere and disintegrate at heights of 50 miles or higher.
Next weekend, if the sky is clear and dark, you may spot as many as 20 meteors falling each hour before dawn. These can appear all over the sky, but you can tell if one is part of the Lyrids swarm by tracing its path backward; if it appears to come from the direction of the constellation Lyra, not far from the bright star Vega in the northeastern sky, it’s almost certainly part of the Lyrids swarm. Otherwise, it’s what astronomers call a sporadic meteor, a random fleck of cosmic dust that just happens to collide with our planet while we watch.
To enjoy the sky show, plan on observing far from city lights. Even light from suburban areas can block our view of meteors. Many people camp in the mountains or wilderness, or set up on side roads away from traffic. Be sure to take a lawn chair or sleeping bag, and a blanket or hot chocolate to keep warm, and gaze generally toward the northeastern sky.
You need no equipment to enjoy the show. The best tools for observing such showers are simply your own eyes. The Lyrids typically produce bright, fast meteors, and about 15 percent leave behind persistent smoky trains that you can watch with binoculars for many minutes after the meteor itself has disintegrated.
Despite the Lyrids’ relatively small numbers, this shower can surprise. On occasion, stargazers are treated to an impressive display of more than 50 per hour, as they were in 1803, 1922 and 1982. Will this happen again in next Saturday’s sky?
There’s only one way to find out!
— Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.