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Moonlit skies to subdue 2016 Lyrid meteors

Above: Composite image of Lyrid and non-Lyrid meteors over New Mexico from April 21-23, 2012. Image via NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser

The Lyrid meteor shower is active each year from about April 16-25, and we’re now approaching the peak of this shower for 2016, though under the light of the waxing gibbous moon. The peak night for the Lyrids will probably fall on the night of April 21-22 (late night April 21 to dawn April 22) – the same night as the April 2016 full moon!

On a dark, moonless night, this modest shower often offers no more than 10 to 20 meteors per hour at its peak, but it’s been known to have bursts of activity that could dazzle you. This year, in an extraordinary bit of bad timing, the Lyrid shower is forecast to peak in the same hour as the full moon. Your best best this year is to watch after the moon sets but before the onset of dawn on the mornings of April 20 and 21. On the peak night of (night of April 21, morning of April 22), the full moon will shine from dusk until dawn!

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Sheryl R. Garrison caught a meteor this past weekend, April 19, 2015.

Lyrid meteor in 2015, from Sheryl R. Garrison.

As a general rule, the most Lyrid meteors tend to fly shortly before dawn. From most latitudes, the optimal viewing window for watching these meteors is from about 2 a.m. local time (3 a.m. local Daylight Saving Time) until dawn’s first light.

Find a dark, safe location, away from artificial lights for observing these fast-moving and sometimes surprisingly bright meteors.

The links on this almanac page will help you determine the sunrise time for your locality. Or try this Custom Sunrise/ Sunset Calendar. Be sure to check the box for moonset times.

For the best results, find an open sky and dark location to watch the Lyrid meteor shower.

Like other meteor showers, the Lyrids are notorious for defying easy forecasting. Unexpected outbursts pushed the rates to 90 meteors per hour in 1982, 100 meteors per hour in 1922 and 700 meteors per hour in 1803. Ancient Chinese records claim these meteors literally fell like rain in 687 B.C.

So you never know for sure what you’ll get with the Lyrid shower. It could feature a home run derby, or a no-hitter – or somewhere in between. But the moon is surely to damen the number of visible meteors in 2016.

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.

On April 22, 2012 a fireball seen over California and Nevada resulted in some meteorite fragments being recovered. These fragments – and that fireball – were NOT associated with the 2012 Lyrid meteor shower, even though they happened at the same time. Image of Sutter’s Mill meteorite fragments collected by astronomer Peter Jenniskens on April 24. Image via NASA / Eric James

That was especially true in 2012 when – at the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower on April 22 – people in California and Nevada saw a large fireball streak across the sky and heard a sonic boom that rattled windows. Later, the incoming object was said to be the size of a mini-van. Was this object related to the Lyrid meteor shower? No. Meteors in annual showers are the result of rice-grain-sized, icy debris left behind in the orbits of comets. The Lyrids’ parent body is Comet Thatcher. Every year in April, the Earth plunges through the orbital path of this comet. Bits and pieces left behind by the comet smash into the Earth’s upper atmosphere and vaporize. We see the falling, vaporizing grains as Lyrid meteoers, which rarely survive their fiery trip through Earth’s atmosphere.

The April 22, 2012 fireball, on the other hand, was clearly rocky. In fact, two days after the fireball – thanks to tracking of the meteor by Doppler weather radar – a small rocky fragment was picked up in the Henningsen Lotus Park just west of Coloma, California. It turned out to be the meteorite from the April 22 fireball.

NASA scientists later said they struck scientific gold with this object, whose rapid recovery let them study for the first time a primitive meteorite with little exposure to the elements.

Bottom line: The 2016 Lyrid meteor will be climbing to its peak in the next few days – probably producing the most meteors in the predawn hours on the morning of April 22 (though under the light of the full moon). Simply find a dark, open sky away from artificial lights, enjoy the comfort of a reclining lawn chair and look upward.

Everything you need to know: Lyrid meteor shower

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Bruce McClure

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