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You can take some meteor showers to the bank, like the Leonids, Perseids and Geminids. Other showers are more spikey; they can underperform one year, with just a few dozen meteors an hour, or boost up to hundreds in an hour – a full on meteor storm! Our next meteor shower, the Lyrids, is one of those examples, especially when the peak night coincides with a new Moon: April 21/22, 2012. Is it going to be amazing this year? There’s only one way to find out – get outside, and look up.
The meteors come from Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1); the trail of debris left behind as it makes a 415-year highly elliptical journey around the Sun. And each year the Earth passes through this trail, scooping up the the tiny particles of ice and dust and annihilating them in the atmosphere. Thatcher’s loss is our gain.
They’re named for the constellation Lyra, since the meteors appear to emanate from a region just off to the side of the familiar constellation – the bright star Vega is part of Lyra. Don’t just look at that one spot, though, meteors can be seen anywhere in the sky.
Each year the Lyrids start to build around April 16, peaking on April 21/22, and then fade away by April 26. At the peak, the Lyrids can deliver 10-20 meteors per hour. But there can also be spikes of activity, with more than 100 meteors per hour, as the Earth passes through clumps in the dust trail.
It’s almost impossible to know, in advance, if it’s going to be a great year for any specific meteor shower. But this year’s Lyrids Meteor Shower coincides with a new Moon on April 21. Without the glare of a bright Moon, the meteors are easier to spot.
You can see the shower from any spot on Earth, just head outside on the evening of April 21, and give your eyes time to adjust to the dark skies. Get out of the glare of a city if you can, to a dark enough location that you can see the Milky Way once the skies have fully darkened. Here’s a handy map you can use to find dark sky locations in the US.
Of course, meteor showers are best shared with friends. Gather together some fellow astro-enthusiasts, pack some warm clothing, and enjoy the sky show. If you can, try to time your viewing as late as possible, or even in the early morning, when the sky has fully darkened and the stars are really bright.
And be patient. It might take a few hours, but you could be lucky enough to see a Lyrid fireball blaze across the sky, burning a trail into the night sky for a few moments. Just one fireball will make your whole evening worth while.