Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks April 21/22, 2012

Lyrids Meteor Shower

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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.

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast – April 16-22, 2012

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Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s International Dark Skies Week and a great time to enjoy astronomy! We’ll start off with an impressive galaxy for even small optics and enjoy two meteor showers. There are planets and planetary nebula to explore, as well as some awesome globular clusters. If you’re in the mood, there’s some history to learn and plenty of astronomy facts! Whenever you’re ready, meet me in the back yard…

Monday, April 16 – Before binocular observers begin to feel that we have deserted them, let’s drop in on a binocular and very small telescope galaxy that resides roughly a handspan below Spica – M83 (Right Ascension: 13 : 37.0 – Declination: -29 : 52). Starhop instructions are not easy for this one, but look for a pair of twin stars just west of the easily recognized “box” of Corvus – Gamma and R Hydrae. You’ll find it about four fingerwidths further south of R.

As one of the brightest galaxies around, the “Southern Pinwheel” was discovered by Lacaille in 1752. Roughly 10 million light-years distant, M83 has been home to a large number of supernova events – one of which was even detected by an amateur observer. To binoculars it will appear as a fairly large, soft, round glow with a bright core set in a delightful stellar field. As aperture increases, so do details – revealing three well defined spiral arms, a dense nucleus and knots of stars. It is truly a beauty and will become an observing favorite!

Tuesday, April 17 – Today in 1976, the joint German and NASA probe Helios 2 came closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft so far. One of its most important contributions helped us to understand the nature of gamma ray bursts.

Are you ready for even more meteors? Tonight is the peak of the Sigma Leonids. The radiant is located at the Leo/Virgo border, but has migrated to Virgo in recent years. Thanks to Jupiter’s gravity, this shower may eventually become part of the Virginid Complex as well. The fall rate is very low at around one to two per hour. While you’re watching this region of sky, be sure to check out the close pairing of Saturn and Spica!

With tonight’s dark skies, this would be a perfect time for larger telescopes to discover an unusual galaxy grouping in Hydra about 5 degrees due west of the Xi pairing (RA 10 36 35.72 Dec -27 31 03.2).

Centralmost are two fairly easy ellipticals, NGC 3309 and NGC 3311, accompanied by spiral NGC 3322. Far fainter are other group members, such as NGC 3316 and NGC 3314 to the east of the 7th magnitude star and NGC 3305 north of the 5th magnitude star. While such galaxy clusters are not for everyone, studying those very faint fuzzies is a rewarding experience for those with large aperture telescopes.

Wednesday, April 18 – Before we have any Moon to contend with, let’s head out in search of an object that is one royal navigation pain for the northern hemisphere, but makes up for it in beauty. Start with the southernmost star in Crater – Beta. If you have difficulty identifying it, it’s the brightest star east of the Corvus rectangle. Now hop a little more than a fistwidth southeast to reddish Alpha Antilae. Less than a fistwidth below, you will see a dim 6th magnitude star that may require binoculars in the high north. Another binocular field further southwest and about 4 degrees northwest of Q Velorum is our object – NGC 3132 (RA 10 07 01.76 – Dec -40 26 11.1). If you still have no luck, try waiting until Regulus has reached your meridian and head 52 degrees south.

More commonly known as the “Southern Ring” or the “Eight Burst Planetary,” this gem is brighter than the northern “Ring” (M57) and definitely shows more details. It can be captured in even small instruments, larger ones will reveal a series of overlapping shells, giving this unusual nebula its name.

Thursday, April 19 – Today in 1971, the world’s first space station was launched – the Soviet research vessel Salyut 1. Six weeks later, Soyuz 11 and its crew of three docked with the station, but a mechanism failed denying them entry. The crew carried out their experiments, but were sadly lost when their re-entry module separated from the return spacecraft and depressurized. Although the initial phase of Salyut 1 seemed doomed, the mission continued to enjoy success through the early 1980s and paved the way for Mir.

Tonight let’s try picking up a globular cluster in Hydra that is located about 3 fingerwidths southeast of Beta Corvus and just a breath northeast of double star A8612 – M68 (Right Ascension: 12 : 39.5 – Declination: -26 : 45).

This class X globular was discovered in 1780 by Charles Messier and first resolved into individual stars by William Herschel in 1786. At a distance of approximately 33,000 light-years, it contains at least 2000 stars, including 250 giants and 42 variables. It will show as a faint, round glow in binoculars, and small telescopes will perceive individual members. Large telescopes will fully resolve this small globular to the core!

Friday, April 20 – By 1850, Lord Rosse had used the 72 inch speculum-mirrored “Leviathon at Parsontown” (Birr Castle, Ireland) to catalogue fourteen previously indecipherable glowing clouds in deep space as “spiral nebulae.” The very first one resolved was originally a discovery of Charles Messier – found while chasing a comet on the night of October 13, 1773. That discovery, M51, had to wait 72 years until large reflecting telescopes unveiled its spiral form. It would take another 75 years before M51’s extragalactic nature became an indisputable fact. Interestingly, observers have now become so accustomed to seeing spiral structure in brighter galaxies that even mid-sized scopes can see M51 (Right Ascension: 13 : 29.9 – Declination: +47 : 12) – the Whirlpool Galaxy – as a “Grand Spiral.” Tonight see what Rosse saw for yourself.

Start in Ursa Major by locating Mizar (Zeta) and Alkaid (Eta), then rotate the line between these two 90 degrees south using Eta as the pivot. With the line oriented to the southwest, cut it in half. With good conditions and a mid-sized scope, you can be initiated into the mystery of the spiral nebulae – nebulae whose individual stars had to await the development of very large professional scopes and long-exposure photography to reveal their stellar nature to the questing human imagination!

Saturday, April 21 – It’s Saturday night and we’ve got New Moon! Tonight, let’s use our binoculars and telescopes and take a look at a spectacular stellar sphere. Let’s find one of the best northern hemisphere globular clusters – M3! You can locate M3 (Right Ascension: 13 : 42.2 – Declination: +28 : 23) easily by identifying Cor Caroli (Alpha Canes Venatici) and Arcturus. Sweep your binoculars along a line halfway between the two and you will uncover this condensed beauty just east of Beta Comae. With added inches and magnification, the stars are out to play!

Discovered by Charles Messier on May 3, 1764, this condensed ball of approximately a half million stars is one of the oldest formations in our galaxy. At 35-40,000 light years distant, this awesome globular cluster spans 220 light years and is believed to be 10 billion years old.

Now let’s check out a dandy little group of stars that are about a fistwidth southeast of Procyon and just slightly more than a fingerwidth northeast of M48. Called C Hydrae, this group isn’t truly gravitationally bound, but is a real pleasure to large binoculars and telescopes of all sizes. While they share similar spectral types, this mixed magnitude collection will be sure to delight you!

Sunday, April 22 – Today celebrates the birthday of Sir Harold Jeffreys, who was born in 1891. Jeffreys was an astrogeophysicist and the first person to envision Earth’s fluid core. He also helped in our understanding of tidal friction, general planetary structure, and the origins of our solar system.

Start your moonless morning off before dawn with a chance to view the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower. Since the radiant is near Vega, you will improve your chances of spotting them when the constellation of Lyra is as high as possible. This stream’s parent is Comet Thatcher, and it produces around 15 bright, long-lasting meteors per hour!

Before you begin your observations tonight, be sure to check out the cool triangulation of Theta Leonis, Regulus and Mars!

Let’s begin tonight in eastern Hydra and pick up another combination Messier/Herschel object. You’ll find M48 (Right Ascension: 8 : 13.8 – Declination: -05 : 48) easily just a little less than a handspan southeast of Procyon.

Often called a “missing Messier,” Charles discovered this one in 1711, but cataloged its position incorrectly. Even the smallest of binoculars will enjoy this rich galactic cluster filled with more than 50 members including some yellow giants. Look for a slight triangle shape with a conspicuous chain of stars across its center. Larger telescopes should use lowest power since this will fill the field of view and resolve splendidly. Be sure to mark your notes for both a Messier object and Herschel catalog H VI 22!

Until next week? Dreams really do come true when you keep on reaching for the stars!

April’s Shooting Stars

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April showers? Yes! The 16th to the 26th this month brings us the April Lyrid Meteor Shower, with the peak occurring on April 22nd.

The meteors in this shower tend to be bright and leave persistent trains as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. In recent years the shower has averaged 10 to 20 meteors per hour.

You may think that this sounds like a fairly mediocre shower and not worth bothering with, but it has been known for the Lyrids to surge and rates rise rapidly to over 100 per hour! This is what makes this shower so interesting and difficult to predict. Will it be a biggy this year or not?

Lyrid meteors radiate from a point (radiant) in the constellation of Lyra and this is where this shower gets its name. The best time to look for Lyrid meteors will late in the evening on April 22nd after 10 pm as the constellation of Lyra rises up from the northeast horizon.

This will give you 2 or 3 hours of meteor watching before the waning gibbous moon rises and starts to wash out the sky. But still, it’s well worth staying up to see as many bright meteors as possible.