Shannon Schmoll, science education and astronomy expert and director of the Abrams Planetarium at MSU, offers insight to the upcoming Lyrid meteor shower expected between April 16 and 25.
What is the Lyrid meteor shower?
This is an annual meteor shower that is a result of debris that crosses our orbit from the long-period comet known as Comet Thatcher. It was last seen in our inner solar system in 1861, but the debris it left behind continues to cross our orbit.
The small bits of material fall through our atmosphere and are heated due to friction. We see the light this process creates as a meteor streaking quickly through our sky. Most pieces are very tiny and are completely destroyed in this process. The meteors appear to originate from the constellation Lyra, hence the name Lyrids.
When does it occur?
The Lyrids tend to occur each year in late April. This year, you can watch for it April 16 to 25. The best night to see it will be on Saturday, April 22.
What does the meteor shower look like?
The peak number of meteors you can see in an hour this year will be about 15 to 20. However, that number is derived from what you could see with perfect vision and under the most ideal circumstances. More than likely, you only will see a handful at most even if you stay outside the whole night. But that just makes it more special when you do spot a meteor. When you do see one it will look like a very quick streak of light across the sky.
What are your tips for optimum viewing?
Get a comfy seat, some warm clothes and a warm beverage. Try not to turn on any lights to allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. If you need light, use a red flashlight as it will help you keep your night vision. Then head out in the hours before sunrise and look up toward the east. That will be your best bet to see it.
Will you be able to see this meteor shower from any location?
The constellation Lyra can be seen from most anyplace on Earth, so if you have a clear view of the eastern sky, you should be able see the meteor shower. In general, the best spots to view it will have darker skies, which will let you see fainter meteors. Locations with a lot of light pollution like in city centers will make it more difficult but not impossible to view.
Why do certain meteor showers occur at consistent times of the year?
Meteor showers occur because we have pockets of debris in our orbit and as the Earth moves through the debris, we pick it up like bugs hitting a windshield as we drive down a freeway. Because this debris pocket is made of remnants from Comet Thatcher, that debris crosses our orbit in one particular place, and we will always reach that same spot at the same time each year.
How old is this meteor shower?
We can’t really know for sure, but humans have been documenting it for about 2,700 years, with the first recording of this particular shower dating to 687 B.C.E. in China.