Norwegian Skydiver Almost Gets Hit by Falling Meteor — and Captures it on Film

A multiple frame picture of the rock falling, taken from a video taken during a skydive in 2012. Credit and copyright: Anders Helstrup, used by permission.

It sounds like a remarkable story, almost unbelievable: Anders Helstrup went skydiving nearly two years ago in Hedmark, Norway and while he didn’t realize it at the time, when he reviewed the footage taken by two cameras fixed to his helmet during the dive, he saw a rock plummet past him. He took it to experts and they realized he had captured a meteorite falling during its “dark flight” — when it has been slowed by atmospheric braking, and has cooled and is no longer luminous.

UPDATE: See our new article on this topic: Follow Up on Skydiving Meteorite: Crowdsourcing Concludes it Was Just a Rock

Respected Norwegian astrophysicist Pål Brekke confirmed to Universe Today that the story is true and the video is authentic. “I was part of the investigation – and kept secret for two years – in hope of finding the meteorite,” Brekke said via a conversation on Twitter.

Since the search for the meteorite has come up empty so far, Helstrup’s story and video has been released in an effort to recruit more people to look for the rock — and to confirm that this actually was a meteorite.

“It has been a little hard to keep it as a secret,” Helstrup told Universe Today via email, “but everyone has been loyal to the project and helped us out!”

Here’s the video:

The rock zooms by at about :15 in this video:

You can watch a slower version in the video below.

Helstrup has been searching with friends, family and volunteers after getting advice from experts from the Geological Museum in Oslo, Norwegian Space Centre and Norwegian meteor network, making painstaking efforts to pinpoint the location of where the meteorite fell.

“The meteorite has for sure some possible hiding spots,” Helstrup said. “There is a forest with lots of different places it can easily disappear. Even if there is several areas where it would be found easily, there is a river, some marshy spots and areas and lots of high grass. Therefore the best chance of a finding would be in springtime. But we have high hopes!”

Finding the rock would provide the definitive confirmation it really was a space rock that Helstrup captured on film. There’s been much debate about the veracity of both the video and the claim (read Phil Plait’s look at the evidence) but in fact, it is Helstrup who might be most skeptical this was a meteor. There are experts, however, who say there is no doubt.

“It can’t be anything else,” said geologist Hans Amundsen, quoted in the Norwegian publication NRK. “The shape is typical of meteorites – a fresh fracture surface on one side, while the other side is rounded.”

He added that the meteorite may have been part of a larger rock that had exploded perhaps 20 kilometers above Helstrup.

What if the rock would have hit Helstrup or his diving partner? Amundson said the rock would have cut him in half.

“Imagine a 5 kilo rock hitting you in the chest at 300 kilometers per hour,” Amundson says in the video. “That would have led to quite an accident investigation.”

This is unique because — if confirmed — this is the first time a meteor in dark flight has been captured on film.

“Fireballs entering the atmosphere have been filmed many times,” says Morten Bilet in the video. Bilet is a meteorite expert. “This is unique because it was filmed during its so called “dark flight” – after it has been burned out. That’s never been done before so this is something new and exciting.”

We’ve asked Helstrup to keep us posted on any developments in this story or if the meteorite is found.

You can read more about the story from NRK, and the Norwegian Space Center, and the Norwegian Meteorite Society.

Experts Question Claim Tunguska Meteorite May Have Come from Mars

Image credit:

In 1908 a blazing white line cut across the sky before exploding a few miles above the ground with a force one thousand times stronger than the nuclear blast that leveled Hiroshima, Japan.

The resulting shock wave felled trees across more than 800 square miles in the remote forests of Tunguska, Siberia.

For over 100 years, the exact origins of the Tunguska event have remained a mystery. Without any fragments or impact craters to study, astronomers have been left in the dark. That’s not to say that all kinds of extraordinary causes haven’t been invoked to explain the event. Various people have thought of everything from Earth colliding with a small black hole to the crash of a UFO.

Russian researchers claim they may finally have evidence that will dislodge all conspiracy theories, but that “may” is huge. A team of four believes they have recovered fragments of the object — the so-called Tunguska meteorite — and even think they are Martian in origin. The research, however, is being called into question.

In a detective-like manner, the team surveyed 100 years’ worth of research. The researchers read eyewitness reports and analyzed aerial photos of the location. They performed a systematic survey of the central region in the felled forest and analyzed exotic rocks and penetration funnels.

A schematic of the Tunguska event. Image Credit:
A schematic of the central region in the felled forest due to the Tunguska event. Image Credit: Anfinogenov et al.

Previously, numerous expeditions failed to recover any fragments that could be attributed conclusively to the long-sought Tunguska meteorite. But then Andrei Zlobin, of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Vernadsky State Geological Museum, discovered three stones with possible traces of melting. He published the results in April 2013.

Zlobin’s discovery paper was received with skepticism and Universe Today covered the news immediately. A curious question arose quickly: why did it take so long for Zlobin to analyze his samples? The expedition took place in 1988, but it took 20 years before the three Tunguska candidates were nominated and another five years before Zlobin finished the paper.

By Zlobin’s admission, his discovery paper was only a preliminary study. He claimed he didn’t carry out a detailed chemical analysis of the rocks, which is necessary in order to reveal their true nature. Most field experts quickly dismissed the paper, feeling there was more work to be done before Zlobin could truly know if these rocks were fragments from the Tunguska meteor.

Today, new research is moving forward with an analysis of the rocks originally discovered by Zlobin. But an interesting new addition to the collection is a rock called “John’s Stone” — a large boulder discovered in July, 1972. While it’s mostly a dark gray now it was much lighter at the time of its discovery. “John’s Stone has an almond-like shape with one broken side,” lead author Dr. Yana Anfinogenov told Universe Today.

Now the skeptical reader might be asking the same question as before: why is there such a large time-lapse between the discovery of John’s Stone and the analysis presented here? (It’s interesting to note that while this elusive rock has been reviewed in the literature for over 40 years, this is the first time it has appeared in an English paper). Anfinogenov claimed that new data (especially concerning Martian geology) allowed for a much better analysis today than it did in recent years.

Photos (1972) of John's Stone and related findings. Image Credit:
Photos (1972) of John’s Stone and related findings. Image Credit: Anfinovenov et al.

“The ground near John’s Stone presents undeniable impact signs suggesting that the boulder hit the ground with a catastrophic speed,” Anfinogenov told Universe Today. It left a deep trace in the permafrost which allowed researchers to note its trajectory and landing velocity coincides with that of the incoming Tunguska meteorite.

John’s Stone also contains shear-fractured splinter fragments with glossy coatings, indicating the strong effect of heat generated when it entered our atmosphere. The research team attempted to reproduce those glossy coatings found on the splinters by heating another fragment of John’s Stone to 500 degrees Celsius. The experiment was not successful as the fragment disintegrated in high heat.

“The authors do not present a strong case that the boulder known as John’s Stone was involved in the Tunguska event, or that it originated from Mars,” said Dr. Phil Bland, a meteorite expert at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

They claim the mineral structure and chemical composition of the rocks — a quartz-sandstone with grain sizes of 0.5 to 1.5 cm and rich in silica — match rocks found on Mars. But their paper lacks any microanalysis of the samples, or isotopic study.

While there is a strong case that an impact on Mars could easily eject rock fragments that would then hit the Earth, something doesn’t match up. “The physics of ejecting material from Mars into interplanetary space argues for fragments with diameters of one to two meters, not the 20 to 30 meter range that would be required for Tunguska,” Bland told Universe Today.

It seems as though planetary geologists will require a much stronger case than this to be truly convinced John’s Stone is the Tunguska meteorite, let alone from Mars.

The paper is currently under peer-review but is available for download here.

Satellite Watches Dust from Chelyabinsk Meteor Spread Around the Northern Hemisphere

Model and satellite data show that four days after the bolide explosion, the faster, higher portion of the plume (red) had snaked its way entirely around the northern hemisphere and back to Chelyabinsk, Russia. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization

When a meteor weighing 10,000 metric tons exploded 22.5 km (14 miles) above Chelyabinsk, Russia on Feb. 15, 2013, the news of the event spread quickly around the world. But that’s not all that circulated around the world. The explosion also deposited hundreds of tons of dust in Earth’s stratosphere, and NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite was in the right place to be able to track the meteor plume for several months. What it saw was that the plume from the explosion spread out and wound its way entirely around the northern hemisphere within four days.

The bolide, measuring 59 feet (18 meters) across, slipped quietly into Earth’s atmosphere at 41,600 mph (18.6 kilometers per second). When the meteor hit the atmosphere, the air in front of it compressed quickly, heating up equally as quick so that it began to heat up the surface of the meteor. This created the tail of burning rock that was seen in the many videos that emerged of the event. Eventually, the space rock exploded, releasing more than 30 times the energy from the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. For comparison, the ground-impacting meteor that triggered mass extinctions, including the dinosaurs, measured about 10 km (6 miles) across and released about 1 billion times the energy of the atom bomb.

Atmospheric physicist Nick Gorkavyi from Goddard Space Flight Center, who works with the Suomi satellite, had more than just a scientific interest in the event. His hometown is Chelyabinsk.

“We wanted to know if our satellite could detect the meteor dust,” said Gorkavyi, who led the study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “Indeed, we saw the formation of a new dust belt in Earth’s stratosphere, and achieved the first space-based observation of the long-term evolution of a bolide plume.”

The team said they have now made unprecedented measurements of how the dust from the meteor explosion formed a thin but cohesive and persistent stratospheric dust belt.

About 3.5 hours after the initial explosion, the Ozone Mapping Profiling Suite instrument’s Limb Profiler on the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite detected the plume high in the atmosphere at an altitude of about 40 km (25 miles), quickly moving east at about 300 km/h (190 mph).

The day after the explosion, the satellite detected the plume continuing its eastward flow in the jet and reaching the Aleutian Islands. Larger, heavier particles began to lose altitude and speed, while their smaller, lighter counterparts stayed aloft and retained speed – consistent with wind speed variations at the different altitudes.

By Feb. 19, four days after the explosion, the faster, higher portion of the plume had snaked its way entirely around the Northern Hemisphere and back to Chelyabinsk. But the plume’s evolution continued: At least three months later, a detectable belt of bolide dust persisted around the planet.

Gorkavyi and colleagues combined a series of satellite measurements with atmospheric models to simulate how the plume from the bolide explosion evolved as the stratospheric jet stream carried it around the Northern Hemisphere.

“Thirty years ago, we could only state that the plume was embedded in the stratospheric jet stream,” said Paul Newman, chief scientist for Goddard’s Atmospheric Science Lab. “Today, our models allow us to precisely trace the bolide and understand its evolution as it moves around the globe.”

NASA says the full implications of the study remain to be seen. Scientists have estimated that every day, about 30 metric tons of small material from space encounters Earth and is suspended high in the atmosphere. Now with the satellite technology that’s capable of more precisely measuring small atmospheric particles, scientists should be able to provide better estimates of how much cosmic dust enters Earth’s atmosphere and how this debris might influence stratospheric and mesospheric clouds.

It will also provide information on how common bolide events like the Chelyabinsk explosion might be, since many might occur over oceans or unpopulated areas.

“Now in the space age, with all of this technology, we can achieve a very different level of understanding of injection and evolution of meteor dust in atmosphere,” Gorkavyi said. “Of course, the Chelyabinsk bolide is much smaller than the ‘dinosaurs killer,’ and this is good: We have the unique opportunity to safely study a potentially very dangerous type of event.”

Source: NASA

An Early Start for Noctilucent Clouds

Noctilucent clouds photographed over Killygordon, Ireland on the morning of June 10. (© Brendan Alexander/Donegal Skies. All rights reserved.)

The season for noctilucent “night-shining” clouds is arriving in the northern hemisphere, when wispy, glowing tendrils of high-altitude ice crystals may be seen around the upper latitudes, shining long after the Sun has set. Found about 83 km (51 miles) up, noctilucent clouds (also called polar mesospheric clouds) are the highest cloud formations in the atmosphere. They’ve been associated with rocket launches and space shuttle re-entries and are now thought to also be associated with meteor activity… and for some reason, this year they showed up a week early.

Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) form between 76 to 85 kilometers (47 to 53 miles) above Earth’s surface when there is just enough water vapor to freeze into ice crystals. The icy clouds are illuminated by the Sun when it is just below the horizon, after darkness has fallen, giving them their night-shining properties. This year NASA’s AIM spacecraft, which is orbiting Earth on a mission to study high-altitude ice, started seeing noctilucent clouds on May 13th.

AIM map of noctilucent clouds over the north pole on June 8 (Credit: LASP/University of Colorado)
AIM map of noctilucent clouds over the north pole on June 8
(Credit: LASP/University of Colorado)

“The 2013 season is remarkable because it started in the northern hemisphere a week earlier than any other season that AIM has observed,” reports Cora Randall of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. “This is quite possibly earlier than ever before.”

The early start is extra-puzzling because of the solar cycle. Researchers have long known that NLCs tend to peak during solar minimum and bottom-out during solar maximum — a fairly strong anti-correlation. “If anything, we would have expected a later start this year because the solar cycle is near its maximum,” Randall says. “So much for expectations.”

Read more on the NASA AIM page here, and watch the Science@NASA video below for the full story. (Also, check out some very nice NLC photos taken last week in the UK by Stuart Atkinson at Cumbrian Sky.)

Source: NASA

With Russian Meteor Fresh In Everyone’s Memory, ESA Opens An Asteroid Monitoring Center

The two main smoke trails left by the Russian meteorite as it passed over the city of Chelyabinsk. Credit: AP Photo/

It’s been about three months since that infamous meteor broke up over Chelyabinsk, Russia. In that time, there’s been a lot of conversation about how we can better protect ourselves against these space rocks with a potentially fatal (from humanity’s perspective) gravitational attraction to Earth.

This week, the European Space Agency officially inaugurated a “NEO Coordination Centre” that is intended to be asteroid warning central in the European Union. It will be the hub for early warnings on near-Earth objects (hence the ‘NEO’ in the name) under ESA’s space situational awareness program.

ESA estimates that of the 600,000 asteroids and comets that orbit the Sun, about 10,000 of them are NEOs. (They define NEOs as asteroids or comets with sizes of several feet up to several tens of miles.)

NASA, of course, is also gravely concerned about the threat NEOs present. Its administrator, Charles Bolden, talked about this at a Congressional hearing about asteroids in March.

Before delving into the threat, Bolden took a metaphorical deep breath to talk about the dozens of asteroids — a meter or larger — that slam into Earth’s atmosphere each year. Most of them burn up harmlessly, and further, 80 tons of dust-like material rain on Earth daily.

A notable meteor that did cause some damage took place about 100 years ago, in 1908, when an object broke up over an isolated area in Russia and flattened trees for miles. Bolden characterized that as a statistically one-in-a-thousand year event, but added that the “real catch” is this type of event could happen at any time.

NASA, however, is seeking out those that cause a threat. It is supposed to find 90 per cent of asteroids 140 meters or larger by 2020, and is making progress towards that goal. (By comparison, the Chelyabinsk object was estimated at 17 to 20 meters.)

Nine radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 obtained between by NASA's 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna. The part of the asteroid closest to the antenna is at top. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Nine radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 obtained between by NASA’s 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna. The part of the asteroid closest to the antenna is at top. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So how to best monitor the threat? Bolden outlined a few ideas: crowdsourcing, coordinating with other federal agencies and making use of automatic feeds from different telescopes throughout the world (as NASA does right now.)

Bolden emphasized that none of the asteroids we have found is on a collision course with the Earth. Still, NASA and other science experts are not complacent.

In the same hearing, John Holdren — the president’s assistant on science and technology — recommended following a National Academy of Sciences report to spend upwards of $100 million a year on asteroid detection and characterization. To mitigate the threat, Holdren further recommended a visit to an asteroid by 2025, which would perhaps cost $2 billion.

Possible Meteorite Fragments from 1908 Tunguska Explosion Found

Image of potential meteorite fragments from the Tunguska event, from a paper by Andrei E. Zlobin, 'Discovery of probably Tunguska meteorites at the bottom of Khushmo river's shoal.'

The 1908 explosion over the Tunguska region in Siberia has always been an enigma. While the leading theories of what caused the mid-air explosion are that an asteroid or comet shattered in an airburst event, no reliable trace of such a body has ever been found. But a newly published paper reveals three different potential meteorite fragments found in the sandbars in a body of water in the area, the Khushmo River. While the fragments have all the earmarks of being meteorites from the event – which could potentially solve the 100-year old mystery — the only oddity is that the researcher actually found the fragments 25 years ago, and only recently has published his findings.

Like the recent Chelyabinsk airburst event, the Tunguska event likely also produced a shower of fragments from the exploding parent body, scientists have thought. But no convincing evidence has ever been found from the June 30, 1908 explosion that occurred over the Tunguska region. The explosion flattened trees in a 2,000 square kilometer area. Luckily, that region was largely uninhabited, but reportedly one person was killed and there were very few people that reported the explosion. Forensic-like research has determined the blast was 1,000 times more powerful than a nuclear bomb explosion, and it registered 5 on the Richter scale.

Previous expeditions to the region turned up empty as far as finding meteorites; however one expedition in 1939 by Russian mineralogist Leonid Kulik found a sample of melted glassy rock containing bubbles, which was considered evidence of an impact event. But the sample was somehow lost and has never undergone modern analysis.

The expedition in 1998 by Andrei Zlobin from the Russian Academy of Sciences was initially unsuccessful in finding meteorites or evidence of impacts. He made several drill holes in the peat bogs in the area and while he found evidence of the explosion, he didn’t find any meteorites. He then decided to look in the nearby river shoal.

Zlobin gathered about 100 samples of rocks that had features of potential meteorites, but further examination produced just three rocks with tell-tale features like melting and regmalypts – the , thumblike impressions found on the surface of meteorites which are caused by ablation as the hot rock falls through the atmosphere at high speed.

Zlobin writes that “After the expedition the author focused his efforts on experimental investigation of thermal processes and mathematical modeling of the Tunguska impact [Zlobin, 2007],” and he used tree ring evidence to estimate the temperatures from the event, and concluded that rocks already on the ground would not have been changed or melted from the blast, and therefore any rocks having evidence of melting should be from the impactor itself.

Zlobin says he has not yet carried out a detailed chemical analysis of the rocks, which would reveal their chemical and isotopic composition. But he does say the stony fragments do not rule out a comet since the nucleus could easily contain rock fragments. However, he has calculated the density of the impactor must have been about 0.6 grams per cubic centimeter, which is about the same as nucleus of Halley’s comet. Zlobin says that initially, the evidence seems “excellent confirmation of cometary origin of the Tunguska impact.”

While there is nothing definitive yet from Zlobin’s new paper – and there is the question of why he waited so long to conduct his study – his work provides hope for a better explanation of the Tunguska event as opposed to some rather off-the-wall ideas that have been proposed, such as a Tesla death-ray or an explosion of methane gas from the bogs.

The Technology Review blog writes that “clearly there is more work to be done here, particularly the chemical analysis perhaps with international cooperation and corroboration.”

Read Zlobin’s paper, Discovery of probably Tunguska meteorites at the bottom of Khushmo river’s shoal

Source: MIT Technology Review

Cassini Watches as Meteors Hit Saturn’s Rings

ive images of Saturn's rings, taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft between 2009 and 2012, show clouds of material ejected from impacts of small objects into the rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Cornell.

From tell-tale evidence, we know that Earth, our Moon and other bodies in our Solar System are constantly barraged with both small meteoroids and larger asteroids or comets. And sometimes – like in the case of seeing meteors fling across our sky, or flashes on the Moon or Jupiter getting hit by Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 — we even get to watch as it happens. Now, for the first time the Cassini spacecraft has provided direct evidence of small meteoroids crashing into Saturn’s rings.

Researchers say that studying the impact rate of meteoroids from outside the Saturnian system helps scientists understand how different planet systems in our solar system formed.

Saturn’s rings act as very effective detectors of many kinds of surrounding phenomena, including the interior structure of the planet and the orbits of its moons. For example, a subtle but extensive corrugation that ripples 12,000 miles (19,000 kilometers) across the innermost rings tells of a very large meteoroid impact in 1983.

“These new results imply the current-day impact rates for small particles at Saturn are about the same as those at Earth — two very different neighborhoods in our solar system — and this is exciting to see,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “It took Saturn’s rings acting like a giant meteoroid detector — 100 times the surface area of the Earth — and Cassini’s long-term tour of the Saturn system to address this question.”

The Saturnian equinox in summer 2009 was an especially good time to see the debris left by meteoroid impacts. The very shallow sun angle on the rings caused the clouds of debris to look bright against the darkened rings in pictures from Cassini’s imaging science subsystem.

This animation depicts the shearing of an initially circular cloud of debris as a result of the particles in the cloud having differing orbital speeds around Saturn. Image credit: NASA/Cornell

“We knew these little impacts were constantly occurring, but we didn’t know how big or how frequent they might be, and we didn’t necessarily expect them to take the form of spectacular shearing clouds,” said Matt Tiscareno, lead author of the paper and a Cassini participating scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “The sunlight shining edge-on to the rings at the Saturnian equinox acted like an anti-cloaking device, so these usually invisible features became plain to see.”

Tiscareno and his colleagues now think meteoroids of this size probably break up on a first encounter with the rings, creating smaller, slower pieces that then enter into orbit around Saturn. The impact into the rings of these secondary meteoroid bits kicks up the clouds. The tiny particles forming these clouds have a range of orbital speeds around Saturn. The clouds they form soon are pulled into diagonal, extended bright streaks.

“Saturn’s rings are unusually bright and clean, leading some to suggest that the rings are actually much younger than Saturn,” said Jeff Cuzzi, a co-author of the paper and a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist specializing in planetary rings and dust at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “To assess this dramatic claim, we must know more about the rate at which outside material is bombarding the rings. This latest analysis helps fill in that story with detection of impactors of a size that we weren’t previously able to detect directly.”

Source: JPL

Meteorite Crashes Through Roof of a House in Connecticut

Screenshot of the meteorite that crashed through a house in Connecticut on April 19, 2013. Via NBC.

A rock that crashed through a house in Connecticut last weekend has been confirmed to be a meteorite.

Homeowner Larry Beck called police in Wolcott, CT at 10:30 a.m. on April 20, 2013 and said a baseball-sized rock crashed through his home the night before, causing damage to his roof and pipes in the attic before cracking the ceiling in his kitchen. Police reported that people from several towns in the area had called to report a loud boom that rattled windows last Friday evening.

Reports say that at first, police thought the rock was a broken piece of airport runway concrete that had dropped from a plane when landing gear was being lowered. The home is near two airports.

After examining the object on Tuesday, Stefan Nicolescu, the collections manager for the Mineralogy Division at the Yale Peabody Museum confirmed it was in fact a meteorite, likely a chondrite.

Here’s a news report from an NBC station in Connecticut:

View more videos at:

Source: NBC Connecticut

Bright Meteor Rocks Argentina Rock Concert

Talk about a light show! A massive bolide was captured on video during a middle-of-the-night rock concert in Argentina on April 21, 2013. The band, Los Tekis performed at an outdoor concert venue and in perfect timing, right after the band concluded a song, the person who shot the video panned out so that the sky was visible — just as the bolide lit up the sky.
Continue reading “Bright Meteor Rocks Argentina Rock Concert”

This Weekend’s Lyrid Meteor Shower: How to See It

Lyrid meteors will appear to radiate (red circle) from a point near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra. This map shows the sky facing southeast around 3:30 a.m. April 22 - around the time of maximum. Stellarium

Feeling a little meteor-starved lately? Me too. It’s been a meteor shower desert since the Quadrantids of early January. That’s about to change. This weekend brings the celestial version of April showers with the annual appearance of the Lyrids.

The Lyrids ding the bell at maximum strength this weekend April 21-22 (Sunday night-Monday morning in the Americas) hurtling meteors at the modest rate of 10-20 per hour from a point in the sky not far from bright Vega in the constellation Lyra. While some showers spread their meteor crumbs over several days, the Lyrids’ peak activity lasts less than a day. The western hemisphere – particularly the western half of North America – is favored this year.

A Lyrid meteor captured by NASA astronaut Don Pettit out the window of the International Space Station on April 21, 2012. The lights of Florida are visible to the right of the meteor. Credit: NASA
A Lyrid meteor captured by NASA astronaut Don Pettit out the window of the International Space Station on April 21, 2012. The lights of Florida are visible to the right of the meteor. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

There will be a small price to pay for the show. The Lyrid radiant, the point in the sky from which the showers members radiate, rises in the east rather late – around 10:30 p.m. local time. Then there’s the bright gibbous moon, which has a habit of drowning out fainter stars and meteors alike. That makes the best time for viewing the shower after moonset or around 4 a.m. Monday morning. Since dawn begins about 5, you’ll have one good hour. That’s plenty of time to snag at least a few flaming motes of Comet Thatcher.

A bright fireball meteor in twilight. The Lyrids, like all meteor showers, offer up the occasional fireball among a mix of fainter meteors. Credit: John Chumack
A bright fireball meteor in twilight. The Lyrids, like all meteor showers, offer up the occasional fireball among a mix of fainter meteors. Credit: John Chumack

Like most meteor showers, the Lyrids have a parent and single parents are the rule. For the Lyrids, it’s Comet Thatcher, discovered on April 5, 1861, a week before the start of the Civil War, by amateur astronomer A.E. Thatcher observing from New York City. Later it was found to be linked to the Lyrid meteor shower.

Each year in late April, Earth passes through centuries of dust shed by the comet’s tail. When bits of Thatcher flotsam strike the air some 60-70 miles high, they burn up in flashes of meteoric light. Comet tears.

The delicate, rarefied dust tail of Comer C/2012 K5 in Dec. 2012. If Earth happens to intersects a comet's dusty orbit - as we do with Comet Thatcher every April - we witness a meteor shower. Credit: Michael Jaeger
The delicate, rarefied dust tail of Comer C/2012 K5 in Dec. 2012. If Earth happens to intersects a comet’s dusty orbit – as we do with Comet Thatcher every April – we witness a meteor shower. Credit: Michael Jaeger

All meteors are worthy of keeping an eye on, but bear in mind that the Lyrids are no Perseids, the famed summertime shower offering up to 60 meteors per hour under dark skies. But what they lack in numbers, they make up in reliability and surprise.

Records indicate that people have been watching the Lyrids for at least 2,600 years, the longest of any shower. Our oldest descriptions come from the Chinese who penned that “stars fell like rain” on March 16, 687 BC. Apparently the shower was more active in the past and has since evolved into a minor display. But there have been occasional surprises, and that’s what keeps the Lyrids interesting.

Comet Thatcher circles the sun every approxiimately 415 years. Each time it does, the comet leaves dust and small bits of ice and rock in a trail behind it. Sometimes it sheds more dust than others, creating filaments of denser material that can create surprisingly high numbers of Lyrid meteors when the Earth passes through. Not to scale. Illustration: Bob King
Comet Thatcher circles the sun once every approxiimately 415 years. Each time it does, the comet leaves dust and small bits of ice and rock in a trail behind it. Sometimes it sheds more dust than others, creating denser filaments that can make for unexpectedly high numbers of Lyrid meteors when the Earth passes through. Not to scale. Illustration: Bob King

On April 20, 1803 a fire bell roused Richmond, Virginia residents from their beds to witness a similar rain of stars when up to 700 meteors per hour were seen. Other Lyrid outbursts occurred in 1922 (100 per hour), 1945 (100/hr), 1982 (90/hour). Last year’s peak hit 37 per hour from a dark sky site. Now and then, Earth encounters a thicker band of comet debris left behind by Comet Thatcher, suddenly increasing the meteor count by many times and just as suddenly dropping back to the usual 10-20 per hour.

So here’s the bottom line. Don’t expect a big blast, but do avail yourself of the leisurely pleasure of meteor watching and the possibility of seeing pieces of a comet that rounds the sun only every 415 years. Find a spot where artificial lights is at a minimum, dress warmly and head out around 3:30 a.m. Monday. Set up a comfortable lawn chair and have tea or coffee and a blanket at the ready. You’ll do well to face south or east. Now recline back to allow a fulsome view of the sky above and wait for a few well-deserved ooohs and aaahs.