The 2015 Lyrid Meteors Peak Tomorrow Night!

April showers bring May flowers, and this month also brings a shower of the celestial variety, as the Lyrid meteors peak this week.

And the good news is, 2015 should be a favorable year for the first major meteor shower of the Spring season for the northern hemisphere.  The peak for the shower in 2015 is predicted to arrive just after midnight Universal Time on Thursday April 23rd, which is 8:00 PM EDT on the evening of Wednesday April 22nd. This favors European longitudes right around the key time, though North America could be in for a decent show as well. Remember, meteor showers don’t read forecasts, and the actual peak can always arrive early or late. We plan to start watching tonight and into Wednesday and Thursday morning as well. April also sees a extremely variable level of cloud cover over the northern hemisphere, another reason to start your meteor vigil early on if skies are clear.

The radiant for the 2015 Lyrids as seen from 40 degrees north latitude at local midnight. Credit: Stellarium.
The radiant for the 2015 Lyrids as seen from 40 degrees north latitude at local midnight. Credit: Stellarium.

Another favorable factor this year is the phase of the Moon, which is only a slender 20% illuminated waxing crescent on Wednesday night. This means that it will have set well before local midnight when the action begins.

The source of the Lyrid meteors is Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which is on a 415 year orbit and is expected to come back around again in 2276 A.D. 1861 actually sported two great comets, the other being C/1861 J1, also known as the Great Comet of 1861.

The orientation of the Sun, Moon, and the Lyrid radiant at the expected peak of the shower at 24UT/20EDT April 22nd. credit: Stellarium
The orientation of the Sun, Moon, and the Lyrid radiant at the expected peak of the shower at 24UT/20EDT April 22nd. credit: Stellarium

The Lyrids typically exhibit an ideal Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 15-20 per hour, though this shower has been known to produce moderate outbursts from time to time. In 1803 and 1922, the Lyrids produced a ZHR of 100 per hour, and in recent times, we had an outburst of 250 per hour back in 1982. Researchers have tried over the years to tease out a periodicity for Lyrid outbursts, which seem erratic at best. In recent years, the Lyrids hit a ZHR of 20 (2011), 25 (2012), 22 (2013), and 16 last year in 2014.

Keep in mind, we say that the ZHR is an ideal rate, or what you could expect from the meteor shower with the radiant directly overhead under dark skies: expect the actual number of meteors observed during any shower to be significantly less.

A 2014 Lyrid fireball. Credit: The UK Meteor Network
A 2014 Lyrid fireball. Credit: The UK Meteor Network

The radiant for the Lyrids actually sits a few degrees east of the bright star Vega across the Lyra border in the constellation Hercules. They should, in fact, be named the Herculids! In mid-April, the radiant for the April Lyrids has already risen well above the northeastern horizon as seen from latitude 40 degrees north at 10 PM local, and is roughly overhead by 4 AM local. Several other minor showers are also active around late April, including the Pi Puppids (April 24th), the Eta Aquarids (May 6th), and the Eta Lyrids (May 9th). The constellation of the Lyre also lends its name to the June Lyrids peaking around June 6th.

The April Lyrids are intersecting the Earth’s orbit at a high 80 degree angle at a swift velocity of 49 kilometres per second. About a quarter of the Lyrid meteors are fireballs, leaving bright, persistent smoke trains. It’s a good idea to keep a set of binoculars handy to study these lingering smoke trails post-passage.

The Lyrids also have the distinction of having the longest recorded history of any known meteor shower.  Chinese chronicles indicate that “stars dropped down like rain,” on a late Spring night in 687 BC.

Observing a meteor shower requires nothing more than a set of working ‘Mark-1 eyeballs’ and patience. The International Meteor Organization always welcomes reports of meteor counts from observers worldwide to build an accurate picture of evolving meteor debris streams. You can even hear meteor ‘pings’ via FM radio.

Expect the rate to pick up past local midnight, as the Earth plows headlong into the oncoming meteor stream. Remember, the front of the car gets the love bugs, an apt analogy for any Florida resident in mid-April.

A composite view of the 2012 Lyrids plus sporadic meteors. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser
A composite view of the 2012 Lyrids plus sporadic meteors. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser

Catching a photograph of a Lyrid or any meteor is as simple as plopping a DSLR down on a tripod and doing a series of 30 second to several minute long time exposures. Use the widest field of view possible, and aim the camera off at about a 45 degree angle from the radiant to catch the meteors sidelong in profile. Be sure to take a series of test shots to get the ISO/f-stop combination set for the local sky conditions.

Don’t miss the 2015 Lyrids, possibly the first good meteor shower of the year!

Adventures in (Radio) Amateur Astronomy

 Is there truly anything new under the Sun? Well, when it comes to amateur astronomy, many observers are branching out beyond the optical. And while it’s true that you can’t carry out infrared or X-ray astronomy from your backyard — or at least, not until amateurs begin launching their own space telescopes — you can join in the exciting world of amateur radio astronomy.

We’ll admit right out the gate that we’re a relative neophyte when it comes to the realm of radio astronomy. We’ve done radio observations of meteor showers in tandem with optical observations and have delved into the trove of information on constructing radio telescopes over the years. Consider this post a primer of sorts, an intro into the world of radio amateur astronomy. If there’s enough interest, we’ll follow up with a multi-part saga, constructing and utilizing our own ad-hoc “redneck array” in our very own backyard with which to alarm the neighbors and probe the radio cosmos.

Repurposing a TV Dish for amatuater astronomy. Credit: NSF/NRAO/Assoc. Universities, Inc.
The “Itty-Bitty Array”- Re-purposing a TV Dish for amateur astronomy. Credit: NSF/NRAO/Assoc. Universities, Inc.

And much like our exploits in planetary webcam imaging, we’ve discovered that you may have gear kicking around in the form of an old TV dish – remember satellite TV? – in your very own backyard. A simple radio telescope setup need not consist of anything more sophisticated than a dish (receiver), a signal strength detector (often standard for pointing a dish at a satellite during traditional installation) and a recorder. As you get into radio astronomy, you’ll want to include such essentials as mixers, oscillators, and amplifiers to boost your signal.

Frequency is the name of the game in amateur radio astronomy, and most scopes are geared towards the 18 megahertz to 10,000 megahertz range. A program known as Radio-SkyPipe makes a good graphic interface to turn your laptop into a recorder.

Radio astronomy was born in 1931, when Karl Jansky began researching the source of a faint background radio hiss with his dipole array while working for Bell Telephone. Jansky noticed the signal strength corresponded to the passage of the sidereal day, and correctly deduced that it was coming from the core of our Milky Way galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius. Just over a decade later, Australian radio astronomer Ruby Payne-Scott pioneered solar radio astronomy at the end of World War II, making the first ever observations of Type I and III solar bursts as well as conducting the first radio interferometry observation.

A replica of Jansky's first steerable antanta at Green Bank, West Virginia.
A replica of Jansky’s first steerable antenna at Green Bank, West Virginia. (Public Domain image)

What possible targets exist for the radio amateur astronomer? Well, just like those astronomers of yore, you’ll be able to detect the Sun, the Milky Way Galaxy, Geostationary and geosynchronous communication satellites and more. The simple dish system described above can also detect temperature changes on the surface of the Moon as it passes through its phases. Jupiter is also a fairly bright radio target for amateurs as well.

Radio meteors are also within the reach of your FM dial. If you’ve ever had your car radio on during a thunderstorm, you’ve probably heard the crackle across the radio spectrum caused by a nearby stroke of lightning. A directional antenna is preferred, but even a decent portable FM radio will pick up meteors on vacant bands outdoors. These are often heard as ‘pings’ or temporary reflections of distant radio stations off of the trail of ionized gas left in the wake of a meteor.  Like with visual observing, radio meteors peak in activity towards local sunrise as the observer is being rotated forward into the Earth’s orbit.

Amateur SETI is also taking off, and no, we’re not talking about your crazy uncle who sits out at the end of runways watching for UFOs. BAMBI is a serious amateur led project. Robert Gray chronicled his hunt for the elusive Wow! signal in his book by the same name, and continues an ad hoc SETI campaign. With increasingly more complex rigs and lots of time on their hands, it’s not out of the question that an amateur SETI detection could be achieved.

Another exciting possibility in radio astronomy is tracking satellites. HAM radio operators are able to listen in on the ISS on FM frequencies (click here for a list of uplink and downlink frequencies), and have even communicated with the ISS on occasion. AMSAT-UK maintains a great site that chronicles the world of amateur radio satellite tracking.

Amateur radio equipment that eventually made its way to to ISS aboard STS-106. (Credit: NASA).
Amateur radio equipment that eventually made its way to to ISS aboard STS-106. (Credit: NASA).

Old TV dishes are being procured for professional use as well. One team in South Africa did just that back in 2011, scouring the continent for old defunct telecommunications dished to turn them into a low cost but effective radio array.

Several student projects exist out there as well. One fine example is NASA’s Radio JOVE project, which seeks student amateur radio observations of Jupiter and the Sun. A complete Radio Jove Kit, to include receiver and Radio-SkyPipe and Radio-Jupiter Pro software can be had for just under 300$ USD. You’d have a tough time putting together a high quality radio telescope for less than that! And that’s just in time for prime Jupiter observing as the giant planet approaches quadrature on April 1st (no fooling, we swear) and is favorably placed for evening observing, both radio and optical.

Fearing what the local homeowner’s association will say when you deploy your very own version of Jodrell Bank in your backyard?  There are several online radio astronomy projects to engage in as well. [email protected] is the original crowd sourced search for ET online. The Zooniverse now hosts Radio Galaxy Zoo, hunting for erupting black holes in data provided by the Karl Jansky Very Large Array and the Australia Telescope Compact Array. [email protected] is another exciting student opportunity that lets users control an actual professional telescope. Or you can just listen for meteor pings online via NASA’s forward scatter meteor radar based out of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Adrian West also hosts live radio meteor tracking on his outstanding Meteorwatch website during times of peak activity.

A simple but sophistated setup for tracking radio meteors. Credit: NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office.
A simple but sophisticated setup for tracking radio meteors. Credit: NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Interested? Other possibilities exist for the advanced user, including monitoring radio aurorae, interferometry, catching the hiss of the cosmic microwave background and even receiving signals from more distant spacecraft, such as China’s Yutu rover on the Moon.

Think of this post as a primer to the exciting world of amateur radio astronomy. If there’s enough interest, we’ll do a follow up “how-to” article as we assemble and operate a functional amateur radio telescope. Or perhaps you’re an accomplished amateur radio astronomer, with some tips and tricks to share. There’s more to the universe than meets the eye!

-Also be sure to check out SARA, the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers.