In late April each year, we see the return of the Lyrid meteor shower. It may not be the most spectacular meteor shower of the year, but I find it easier to observe. That’s because, in our part of the world, it comes at a time when the weather is mild enough to sit outside and watch (unlike the Geminids in December) and before mosquitoes become a problem (as with the August Perseids shown in the picture).
This year, the return of the Lyrid meteor shower is from April 14-30, with the peak on the night of April 22. Typically, the Lyrids display five to 20 meteors per hour at the peak, although, in some years, the number has been higher. Written records of the Lyrid meteor shower go back 2700 years when Chinese astronomers made note of it in 687 B.C. A Korean account from A.D.1136 says that “many stars flew from the northeast.”
If you see the Lyrid meteor shower, you will not be looking at falling stars, although you may get that impression. Instead, you will see tiny fragments of Comet Thatcher (officially C/1861 G1), discovered in 1861 by amateur astronomer A.E. Thatcher. That year was the last time the comet flew by our planet at 31.1 million miles (50.1 million km). Its next return to our vicinity will be sometime around the year 2280. Meanwhile, Earth’s orbit around the Sun causes us to pass through debris the comet left behind. So we see those fragments as they burn up from the effect of atmospheric friction.
We live in an orderly universe on a planet positioned to allow observation and study of the cosmos. Our planet is designed with an atmosphere and magnetic field to protect us from comet debris, meteorites, cosmic rays, and solar wind. If you have the opportunity to observe the return of the Lyrid meteor shower, use it as a time to thank the Creator for allowing us to live in the just-right time on a just-right planet in a just-right location in the universe.
This year, 2020, has been a bad year for many things. However, it should be a good year for the Geminid meteor shower. It usually is the best meteor show of the year, but this year it might be even better. It will peak tonight in the late hours of December 13 and early hours of December 14.
If you are familiar with meteor showers, you know that they are caused when the Earth, on its journey around the Sun, passes through the remnants of a comet. As comets travel through our solar system, the Sun’s heat vaporizes the outer layers of those rocky snowballs leaving debris in the comet’s path. When our planet crosses that path, tiny rock fragments enter our atmosphere and burn up as friction with the air superheats them. The annual December Geminid meteor shower is different and not caused by a comet.
One difference is that the Geminids are younger than other annual meteor showers, which people have observed for hundreds or thousands of years. People first observed the August Perseids in A.D. 36. The Lyrids, which occur in April, were recorded by the Chinese in 687 B.C. However, the Geminids were first seen in December 1862. Since then, they have returned every year, and they have gradually become more numerous as they reach more than 100 meteors per hour.
So if a passing comet does not cause the Geminids, what does? Astronomers solved that mystery in 1983 when the Infrared Astronomical Satellite discovered a small asteroid, which they named Phaethon. It travels in a very elliptical orbit around the Sun in a little less than a year-and-a-half. That orbit takes it closer to the Sun than Mercury and then beyond Mars to the asteroid belt. The asteroid becomes superheated in its close pass by the Sun. Phaethon also spins on its axis about every three-and-a-half hours meaning that the surface fries as it faces the Sun’s heat and then freezes in the cold of space. The freezing and thawing crack the surface, and the centrifugal force throws out fragments.
Most of the particles resulting from the rapid temperature change and spin are probably only about a millimeter in diameter. For that reason, astronomers believe that Phaethon was struck by another space object in the recent past, causing more meteoroids, which could explain the Geminid show’s quality. This year should be better than average, because the Moon will be new, meaning we will have a dark sky. Another thing that makes the Geminids the best meteor show of the year is that they came in at a much slower speed, so they move more slowly across the sky.
If you have clear skies and can find a dark place with an open view of the sky, you could be in for a treat. However, for those of us in the north, it will be cold. Wear warm clothes, lean back in a lounge chair, cover yourself with a blanket, and be patient. According to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the peak should occur around 8 p.m.EST December 13 (0100 GMT December 14). However, there should be plenty to see for hours before and after that.
As you look at the night sky, remember that the shepherd boy David was looking at the same sky around three millennia ago when he wrote, “The heavens declare the Glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork (Psalms 19:1).” I am sure that David enjoyed an open dark sky with no light pollution from electric lights, but he also didn’t get to see the Geminids, the best meteor show of the year.
For viewers in the Northern Hemisphere, the early morning hours of Sunday, April 22, will be the best viewing time for the 2017 presentation of the Lyrid meteor shower. From mid-April this year to about April 25 the “shooting stars” are visible with as many as a dozen or so per hour. However, on Sunday morning there will probably be up to 20 per hour.
The Lyrid meteor shower comes around every year in April. There are ten significant meteor showers each year, but the last one was the Quadrantid meteors in early January. Now, at last, with the weather a little warmer we have another chance to watch the sky.
The Lyrid meteor shower gets its name from the fact that it seems to radiate from the constellation Lyra, the harp. No, they are not “shooting stars.” The Lyrid meteors are actually fragments broken off from Comet Thatcher which passed by in 1861. That comet makes a pass through our solar system every 415 years or so.
The Comet Thatcher has been passing through and leaving bits behind for a long time because Chinese sky watchers saw the Lyrid meteor shower in 687 B.C. Apparently they were impressed because they recorded that “stars fell like rain.”
Of course, the ancient Chinese didn’t know what caused the event. We know that it’s the result of those comet pieces falling into our atmosphere, being heated by the friction of the air, and burning up. Our atmosphere does more than just give us oxygen to breathe. It also protects us in many ways. One of those protections is that it causes most objects falling from space to burn up before they reach Earth’s surface. That friction requires heat-shield protection for returning Astronauts, but those of us living on the Earth’s surface can be glad to have an atmosphere to protect us. Recently a Chinese space station the size of a bus fell into our atmosphere and disintegrated before reaching the ground. You don’t need a telescope to see the pockmarks on the Moon’s surface from asteroid impacts because the Moon has no atmosphere.