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Lyrid meteor shower peaks in moonlight

Look westward at darkness gives way to nightfall for the planet Mercury.

Look westward at darkness gives way to nightfall for the planet Mercury.

This evening – April 21, 2016 – look eastward to see the full moon near Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. The bright moon (and Spica) will be out all night long, to subdue the Lyrid meteors on their expected peak night. The most Lyrid meteors are expected to fly in the few hours before dawn April 22, but the light of the full moon is sure to wash out all but the very brightest.

In a typical year, unless there’s an outburst going on (which happens on occasion), you might expect to see 10 to 20 meteors per hour. In 2016 – with the bright moon washing the sky all night with its light – you might be lucky to see a few meteors streaking along in the bright moonlight.

Here’s the good news. Though the Lyrids are usually a modest shower, this shower has been known to produce fireballs – exceptionally bright meteors – which might be able to overcome the moonlit glare.

More good news … this is the smallest full moon of 2016, and it’ll be casting a correspondingly smaller amount of light in the sky than a close full moon, or supermoon.

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 on the morning of April 16, 2016, as the Lyrid shower was just beginning. He was in 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!” Visit Manoj on Facebook.

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.

The reason the Lyrids are best before dawn is that the radiant point of the shower – in the constellation Lyra the Harp – will be highest in the sky then. The radiant point for this shower is near Lyra’s brightest star, Vega.

Like most meteors in annual showers, Lyrid meteors burn up in the atmosphere about 100 kilometers – or 60 miles – up. Vega lies trillions of times farther away at 25 light-years. But you don’t have identify the meteor shower radiant to enjoy the Lyrid meteors, which can fly in any parts of the night sky. If you trace the paths of the Lyrid meteors backward, however, they seems to radiate from this part of the starry sky.

About those Lyrid outbursts … the Lyrids aren’t an altogether predictable shower, and in rare instances can bombard the sky with up to nearly 100 meteors per hour. But it’s very, very doubtful you’ll see anything like that number this year.

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 2016

Remember … if you do want to try to watch the shower, find a place away from artificial lights and recline comfortably while looking in all parts of the sky.

Bottom line: The best time to watch Lyrid meteor shower is during the dark hours before dawn – though, in 2016, the full moon is sure to subdue the number of visible meteors.

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Bruce McClure

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