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Before dawn, Lyrid meteors and Venus!

Tonight – April 21, 2017 – start watching late at night, or better yet in the hours before dawn Saturday, and be prepared to see something beautiful. It’s the peak morning of the annual Lyrid meteor shower. Plus the moon will be near Venus. Assuming you’re in a dark location, you really can’t go wrong getting up in the hours before dawn Saturday and gazing skyward. You might catch some meteors, and you’ll surely see Venus near the moon!

The Lyrids aren’t the sky’s richest meteor shower. You might see as many as 10 to 20 meteors per hour in the few hours before Saturday’s dawn. But the Lyrids aren’t an altogether predictable shower. In rare instances, they can bombard the sky with up to nearly 100 meteors per hour. We’re not expecting an outburst this year but even catching a few meteors before dawn counts as a thrill.

Plus this shower sometimes produces fireballs, or exceptionally bright meteors.

Just know that the Lyrids will be best in the hours between midnight and dawn Saturday. Venus and the moon, on the other hand, will ascend into your eastern sky only shortly before sunup. They’ll be an incredibly lovely way to cap off your hours of meteor-watching.

You can’t miss Venus. It’s the brightest planet, and 3rd-brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon. Lisa Spielmaker captured it from Michigan earlier this week (morning of April 17). Now imagine the view Saturday morning when you add a crescent moon and maybe a meteor!

Why watch for meteors before dawn? Although there are exceptions, most meteor showers are best in the hours after midnight. The key is the shower’s radiant point, in this case in the approximate direction to the bright star Vega. This star rises over the northeast horizon by around mid-evening (9 to 10 p.m. local time) at mid-northern latitudes. South of the equator, this star rises later, possibly after midnight. The higher that Vega appears in your sky, the more Lyrid meteors you’re likely to see. Since this brilliant beauty of a star soars to its highest point at or near dawn, the best viewing of this shower is usually around then.

Click here to find out when Vega rises into your sky.

The radiant point of the Lyrid meteor shower is near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp.

The radiant point of the Lyrid meteor shower is near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp. Read more.

Remember, though … you don’t have identify the meteor shower radiant point to enjoy the Lyrid meteors. The meteors radiant from a single point, but they can be seen flying in all parts of the night sky.

Like most meteors in annual showers, Lyrid meteors are the debris of a comet orbiting the sun. They burn up in the atmosphere about 60 miles (100 km) up. Vega, meanwhile, is not really connected with the meteors. It lies trillions of times farther away at 25 light-years.

If you want to watch the shower, be sure to find a place away from artificial lights. Simply recline comfortably while looking in a relaxed way in all parts of the sky.

Want more? Try these links:

Everything you need to know: Lyrid meteor shower

Top ten tips for meteor watchers

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2017

Manoj Kesavan caught this meteor in moonlight on the morning of April 16, as the Lyrid shower was just beginning. He was in Tongariro National Park in New Zealand. He wrote:

Manoj Kesavan caught this meteor in moonlight during 2016’s Lyrid meteor shower, from Tongariro National Park in New Zealand. He wrote: “I have seen the Milky Way rising over the volcanic complex at various seasons and moon phases. Have shot timelapes and star trails on the volcanic valley which was glacially carved out during the last ice age. This particular one is lit by almost 50% moonlight … this scene never gets old for me!”

Bottom line: The best time to watch Lyrid meteor shower is during the dark hours before dawn, and the light of the waning crescent moon shouldn’t really obtrude on the April 2017 Lyrids.

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Bruce McClure