Astronomers and other observers are rare meteor shower event this weekend, sky conditions permitting, as the annual Lyrid peaks with the best observing between midnight and dawn. The Lyrid meteor will be at its best, but in addition, Saturn is just a week from opposition (i.e., directly opposite the sun with Earth in between) such that Saturn’s rings are at an optimal angle for viewing – even with a small telescope as the planet rides high in the sky. Saturn doesn’t reach opposition again until 2017.
What makes this weekend especially exciting (though not likely to make a difference for viewing Saturn) is that it coincides with a new moon – unlike all the major meteor showers in late 2011, which were virtually drowned out by bright moonlight.
So exceptional is the coming weekend that NASA scientists say that if you have to choose just one night in April to go out and look at the stars, it should be April 21.
The Lyrids are usually a modest shower, featuring 10 to 20 meteors per hour. However, they are known for uncommon and unpredictable surges that can sometimes bring the rate up to 100 per hour, as well as an occasional especially brilliant fireball.
One can argue that not knowing what to expect from the Lyrids makes it more enticing to watch rather than risk the disappointment of missing a great show.
The debris trails that spawn the Lyrid meteors were shed by a comet known as C/1861 G1 Thatcher at least 2,500 years ago. The debris is mostly just tiny specks of dust that hit Earth’s atmosphere at almost 110,000 mph. The specks of dust vaporize when striking the atmosphere, leaving behind the streaks we see as meteors.
The Lyrids are so named because they appear to originate from the constellation Lyra the Harp.