Skywatchers will finally be able to enjoy the thrill of watching “shooting stars” again this week when April’s Lyrids meteor shower arrives after a three-month meteor drought.
For those who like to observe the night sky to see meteors, popularly called “shooting” or “shooting” stars, has been pretty quiet in recent months. There are many meteor showers that occur during the year, but only ten are recognized as major meteor displays. The last of these rains to occur was the quadrantid meteor shower on January 3rd. Since then, there have been no other meteor showers of note.
Finally, after 109 days — more than 15 weeks — we will have the opportunity to enjoy the nightly spectacle again with the April Lyrids.
Related: How to photograph meteors and meteor showers
The Lyrid meteor shower has been known for millennia. Chinese chronicle records show that they appear regularly since at least 687 BC
In his long book, Meteor Showers and their Parent Comets, (Cambridge University Press, 2006), author Peter Jenniskens noted that the annual Lyrid rain “has always been my favorite. is the proverbial swallow of spring for Northern Hemisphere observers.”
The 2022 version of Lyrids is expected to peak on Friday (April 22) in the early morning hours. The radiant – the emanation point of these meteors – is about 6 degrees southwest of the bluish glow. star vega at the lyre constellation, which is rising in the northeast sky during the early hours of the night and is practically high at dawn. The moon, the day before last quarterhowever, it will interfere a little with meteor light.
Any meteor whose path, extended backwards, comes within a few degrees of Vega is likely to be a Lyrid. Lyrids are rich in weak meteors, with occasional bright ones. They are considered one of the weakest of the main monitors. compared to august perseids and december Geminiwhich can produce many dozen meteor sightings over the span of an hour, Lyrids usually only produce about 10 to 20 meteors per hour at most.
Typically, this rain is above a quarter of the peak force two days before and after the maximum, so if the weather in your area is choppy on the morning of the 22nd, you’ll still have a chance to catch some Lyrids a day or two early. or after your peak activity time.
But there is always the small chance of a surprise.
1803: A meteor storm
April Lyrids have sometimes provided spectacular displays, such as in 687 BC when Chinese records said “the stars fell like rain” and at least a dozen other times since then. The story is often told of how the residents of Richmond, Virginia, were dragged out of bed by the fire bell on the morning of April 20, 1803. The fire that broke out in the armory was quickly extinguished, but this gave the townspeople a chance. of seeing meteors falling in large numbers from all parts of the sky.
Another account was a letter, published in Raleigh, North Carolina, Record:
“We, the undersigned… being on the night of Wednesday, April 20th, at a fishing party and returning home at about 1 am, were alarmed by the appearance of a shooting of stars; the entire hemisphere even like the extent of the horizon, it seemed to be illuminated; the meteors did not maintain any specific direction, but seemed to move in all directions. We watched the phenomenon into space for perhaps half an hour with amazement, during which no interval appeared. a whistle in the air, but heard no reports. The above statements can be considered as facts.” (Signed by four men).
Other similar reports came from New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Delaware.
The meteor explosion of 1803 was completely unexpected. Very little was known about meteors in the 18th and 19th centuries, except for the slight increase in their numbers each year during early August. Today we know that the progenitor of the Lyrid meteors is Thatcher comet that surrounds the Sun in an orbit of approximately 415 years and was last seen in the spring of 1861.
A brief burst of 100 meteors per hour was reported in 1922. In 1982, rates unexpectedly hit 90 for a single hour, and an astonishing 180 to 300 per hour for a few minutes. “It is indeed possible that many earlier Lyrid explosions were missed simply due to observational gaps,” writes Paul Roggermans in Manual for Visual Observations of Meteors (Sky Publishing Corporation, 1989).
So maybe it wouldn’t hurt to set the alarm for 3 or 4 o’clock on the morning of April 22 to take a brief look out the window, despite the moonlight.
Hey . . . never know.
The next significant meteor display is scheduled to take place in the first week of May, the Eta Aquarids. This shower is one of the most popular annual events for meteor watchers in the Southern Hemisphere; one of the best of the annual showers. Unfortunately, northern observers are hampered by the low altitude of the radiant of this rain, in addition to the arrival of the twilight of dawn, just as the radiant appears. Meteoroids produced by this shower can be traced back to Halley’s Comet. The peak for Eta Aquarids 2022 is expected to occur on the morning of May 6th.
But there’s a second meteor shower in May, which may well turn out to be the best of the year.
An ‘all or nothing’ meteor display
Few people have heard of the Tau Herculide shower. It normally does not produce more than a few meteors during an entire night’s wake. But things changed radically when, at the end of 1995, the core of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (shower parent body) fragmented. Now, several meteor dynamicists have confirmed what i had suggested last year: A stream of particles ejected during the comet breakup could produce a dramatic explosion in late May 2022.
This prediction, however, is uncertain because no one knows for sure how quickly the expulsion of new comet dust left the disintegrating core of 73P. However, we all agree that whatever happens will happen around 1am EDT (0500 GMT) on May 31st. This is a splendid time for the southern half of North America, including virtually all of the contiguous US (evening twilight will interfere with the Pacific Northwest and virtually all of Canada). Even better, the moonlight, the day after its new phase, will not interfere.
The cometary debris cloud will reach Earth at a very slow speed of 16 kilometers per second, which would normally produce very weak meteors. However, the rain radiant will be high in the sky for the Americas, and the meteoroid swarm can be dense enough to produce a spectacular visual show.
Space.com will provide more details on this possible new meteor display in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!
Joe Rao serves as instructor and guest speaker at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History MagazineThe Farmers’ Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom is at Facebook.