Earth is approaching the debris field of ancient Comet Thatcher, source of the annual Lyrid meteor shower. Every year in late April Earth passes through the dusty tail of Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1), and the encounter causes a meteor shower – the Lyrids. This year the shower peaks on Saturday night, April 21st. Forecasters expect 10 to 20 meteors per hour but unmapped filaments of dust in the comet’s tail sometimes trigger outbursts 10 times stronger. A nearly-new moon on those dates will provide perfect dark-sky conditions for meteor watching. Flakes of comet dust, most no bigger than grains of sand, strike Earth’s atmosphere traveling 49 km/s (110,000 mph) and disintegrate as streaks of light.
Lyrid meteors are typically as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper, which is to say of middling brightness. But some are more intense, even brighter than Venus. These “Lyrid fireballs” cast shadows for a split second and leave behind smokey debris trails that linger for minutes.
Occasionally, the shower intensifies. Most years in April there are no more than 5 to 20 meteors per hour during the shower’s peak. But sometimes, when Earth glides through an unusually dense clump of comet debris, the rate increases.
Lyrid meteor shower LIVE CHAT!
On Saturday, April 21, from 03:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. UTC (convert to your local time),meteor experts Dr. Bill Cooke, Danielle Moser and Rhiannon Blaauw from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will answer questions about the Lyrids via a live Web chat. (Click HERE a few minutes before 03 a.m. EDT on Saturday, April 21. The chat module will appear at the bottom of the page. After log in, wait for the chat module to be activated, then ask your questions!)
Featured image: Composite of 2009 Lyrids over Huntsville, Ala. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser)
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