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Meteor shower to brighten heavens

By Robert Roy Britt
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A meteor from a similar event, the Leonid meteor shower, during 2002.
A meteor from a similar event, the Leonid meteor shower, during 2002.

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Meteor shower
Star gazing

(SPACE.comexternal link) -- The annual Lyrid meteor shower will peak before dawn on Thursday, April 22. Skywatchers in the Northern Hemisphere with dark skies away from city lights could see anywhere from five to 25 shootings stars per hour, or one every few minutes.

The timing of this year's version is good, because the moon just passed its new phase and its otherwise bright light not a factor.

The Lyrids are best seen between about 2 a.m. and daybreak local time, regardless of where you live, astronomers say. That's when the shower's radiant -- the point from which they appear to emanate -- is highest in the sky. The Lyrid radiant is in the constellation Lyra, and very near to the bright star Vega.

Vega is easy to find. It's in the eastern sky but nearly overhead in the predawn hours. It is the brightest star in that region of the sky and the 5th brightest star overall.

Lyrid meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. But if you trace each one back, it will point toward Vega. The shower is a result of Earth passing through a trail of debris left by a comet called Thatcher, which last passed through the inner solar system in 1861.

The Lyrid event is typically modest -- not as busy as the November Leonids or the August Perseids. But they are still cherished by devout meteor observers.

"The Lyrids are the first major annual shower of the season," said Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society.

But this April shower sometimes generates a brief outburst, when the rate can climb to more than one a minute. Seasoned observers might notice that the Lyrids move more quickly than typical meteors. Bright and persistent trails are common with the Lyrids.

Most shooting stars are generated by bits no larger than sand grains that vaporize when they plow into Earth's atmosphere. An occasional bright fireball is sometimes sighted amid the Lyrids, caused by debris perhaps the size of a pea or marble.

City and suburban dwellers will see significantly fewer of the meteors than those in rural areas away from all light pollution. The shower is not visible from the Southern Hemisphere.

To look for meteors, experts advise taking along a blanket or lounge chair, so you can recline and avoid neck strain. Dress warmer than you think necessary if you plan to be out for more than a few minutes. Find a spot with wide-open sky. Face east but scan as much of the sky as possible. Allow 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.

Another half-dozen or so meteors not associated with the Lyrids could be visible in any given pre-dawn hour, from dark rural locations, according to Lunsford. These other shooting stars could appear anywhere and move in any direction.

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