Science

How to see the Lyrid meteor shower this weekend

Skywatchers have been hungry for shooting stars since the start of the new year. But this weekend, the Lyrid meteor shower, which has been teasing viewers from the skies since mid-April, will put on a full show Saturday night and Sunday morning. Showers can still be seen in dramatic glimpses through late April.

One of the oldest known meteor showers, the Lyrid reliably appears every April when Earth passes through a debris field left behind by a comet in 1861. Tiny particles, the size of a chunk of sand, heat up when encountered by friction from Earth’s atmosphere, then begins to ignite, creating a meteor. Bright meteors – and sometimes fireballs – caused by debris explosions, move rapidly across the sky and depart without a trace or trail.

People around the world can see 15 to 20 meteors per hour at the peak – only about five meteors per hour will be visible in the days following the peak.

The meteor show, which appears to radiate from the constellation Lyra, will be in full swing starting at 9 p.m. Saturday for East Coast residents, according to the American Meteor Society.

NASA Ambassador Tony Rice dubbed this year’s show “the handy meteor shower” because of the convenient timing, convenient outside temperatures, and convenient viewing opportunities.

For best viewing, Rice suggests watching the sun set toward the western sky, waiting for nightfall, then turning back toward the northeast sky to look for meteors. Meteors will fly from the horizon, Rice said.

After Thursday’s new moon, there will be no moon visible in the sky this weekend to interfere with sightings of the launching meteors. The dark sky will serve as a canvas for the short streaks of light.

Weather boost: Colder air invades the Lower 48 after summer heat

Friday night low pressure over the Great Lakes and Ontario will keep pesky clouds around. Clouds will also be predominant around and ahead of a cold front in New England, the mid-Atlantic, Ohio Valley and Southeast. Behind the front, a clear line of clearance will hover over the central and lower Mississippi Valley, the Gulf Coast west of Alabama, the Ozarks and the southern plains. Chicago and the Corn Belt may see some clearing, but that will depend on how quickly the parent low pressure system moves.

Things get tough in Oklahoma, the Rockies, Intermountain West and the West Coast. Cirrus clouds will likely blow overhead in the jet stream. While not enough to completely obscure the night sky, the effective clouds will likely interfere with stargazing and spotting any meteors. There will be many gaps in cloud cover, but it is impossible to predict where they will be at this time. Southern Arizona and New Mexico, however, should enjoy clear skies.

By Saturday evening, the same low pressure system and cold front over the eastern United States is expected to move into northern Michigan and southeastern Ontario. Clear skies will extend over much of the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, Pennsylvania, New York State and the Midwest. The system will still hang around New England with persistent cover.

The Northern Plains and northern Rockies should see mostly clear conditions, but the Southern Plains and Texas will be mired in cloud cover.

Central and southern California and the desert southwest appear to be mostly clear except for isolated and scattered high clouds. An approaching low pressure system is expected to spread cloud over the Pacific Northwest.

The show is a “naked-eye” event, meaning no equipment is needed to enjoy the view, said Naval Observatory astronomer Geoff Chester. And sightings of fireballs could even be spotted in cities, despite light pollution.

In the past, the Lyrids have been known to have short bursts of 100 meteors per hour, but those chances are “possible, but not likely” this year, Rice said. These rapid explosions occur every 20 to 60 years. Lyrid’s next predicted outburst, characterized by a surprisingly high number of meteors, is expected in 2042, according to EarthSky.

If you want to see shooting stars, you may need to be patient. It might take your eyes 10-15 minutes to adjust to the dark sky before you see the meteors.

“I just love being able to go out and watch the meteor shower when it’s warm outside, and I don’t have to set my alarm clock to do that,” Rice said.

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