THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER’S POTENTIAL DOWNPOUR

by William J. Bechaver

Though generally considered an average meteor shower, there is more to the springtime Lyrid shower than meets the eye.

In the past, we have examined the origin of meteor showers. Most major predictable showers are caused when the Earth passes through the debris field left behind by a passing comet.

In the case of the Lyrid meteors, the responsible visitor is Comet Thatcher, a relatively long-period comet which last passed and was identified way back in 1861.

Comet Thatcher orbits the Sun only once every 415 years, so the particles left behind from its tail at that last passing, over a hundred and fifty years ago, are responsible for the Lyrid meteors we see every year.

Once a year, the Earth’s orbit takes us through that cloud of remaining icy particles. When they impact on the upper level of our atmosphere, they burn up, streaking across the sky in the remarkable fireballs we witness every year.

But in addition to the peak activity we see every year, there are also periodic outbursts of greater activity that have been reported through the ages.

The earliest reports of one such outburst come down to us from way back in 687 B.C. So by that, we know that Comet Thatcher has been orbiting the Sun for millennia.

The last recorded outburst was back in 1982, which rivaled the one reported in 1922. With additional data from the recorded increases in activity, astronomers now predict that they occur in cycles of every twelve years, with some being more intense than others.

This can be attributed to the grouping of the particles left behind, which seem to be effected by the passing of the other planets in the solar system, and the gravitational effects of not only the Earth, but also of other larger bodies, like Jupiter and Saturn.

So, taken into consideration, this year could be the year of such an outburst of activity, with Earth passing through a more dense area of the debris field.

There was a time in 1982 when an incredible 250 meteors were recorded in a one-hour period. Incredibly, that’s between four and five meteor strikes every minute! So it will be worth it to take a look this year, for a chance to witness a spectacularly rare display.

This year, the Lyrid Meteor Shower will peak before dawn on Sunday 22 April. They seem to radiate out from the constellation Lyra, the harp, from which we derive their name.

The brightest star in the region is Vega, which rises before ten o’clock at night. As it climbs higher in the east on peak night, the first quarter Moon is rapidly sinking in the west.

By the time the radiant near Vega has reached its apex, almost directly overhead, the Moon will have set, leaving the sky perfectly dark for meteor watching.

The early morning hours of Sunday will be the best time, with typically 15 to 20 meteors per hour, or one every three to four minutes.

However, remember, meteors are unpredictable and irregular. You may see several all at once, then go several minutes without seeing any.

Or, if we’re lucky, perhaps we will be treated to one of the rare, cyclical bursts that only appear every twelve years.

Whatever the case, with the Moon absent from the early morning sky, it will be a perfect opportunity to go out and catch the best spring meteor shower, and perhaps, in the process, witness a display which is truly rare and historical.

Remember, meteor showers increase over a span of days. The Lyrids actually began earlier this week, and some scientists are predicting a second period of peak activity on the morning of Tuesday 24 April, before they taper off by the end of the week. I suggest getting an early start on viewing, a few days ahead of time. And if the weather interferes on Saturday night and Sunday morning, try going out the next couple of mornings to catch a glimpse of the best spring shower we’re likely to have this year!

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.

• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

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THE MOON JOINS THE PARTY WITH MARS AND SATURN….

by William J. Bechaver

As we began to explore last week, Mars has caught up to Saturn in it’s orbit, and we here on Earth are rapidly gaining on them both. The gap between the two was reduced to less than two degrees this week.

The best time to view this gathering between Mars and Saturn is in the early morning hours. Right now, locating them can be a little tricky. They lie above The Teapot, one of the most recognizable asterisms in the night sky. It is located in the Sagittarius constellation.

Though far outshined by Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are still the brightest objects in the area. If you wait until just after six o’clock, or about a half an hour before sunrise, the three planets will remain the only objects still visible in the predawn sky, along with the Moon, of course. The lightening of the sky will have faded all the stars from view.

Mars and Saturn lie very close together in the south-eastern sky, with brighter Jupiter further off in the west. Though the two smaller planets are not nearly as bright as Jupiter, they outshine the surrounding stars of The Teapot, and are easily discernable. But this weekend, locating the two will become much easier as the Moon will join them, making an impressive grouping.

In the early morning hours of Saturday 7 April, the Moon will be very near the planets, just above the two. Mars and Saturn have separated a bit since their close encounter, so you may notice the difference, if you were able to find them earlier in the month.

The Moon, accompanied by the planets, rises just before the two in the morning. As they climb higher into the sky, it will be easier to view the planets. Just below the Moon will be Saturn, and a little further below will be reddish Mars.

The following morning, on Sunday, the Moon will have moved lower and further off to the east, being nearer Mars, and maintaining the beautiful grouping.

Remember, the planets are not really any closer together than they usually are in their orbits. They only appear closer together from our viewpoint on Earth in our normal path in our orbit.

Saturn appears a little dimmer than Mars, even though it is much larger than the red planet. Saturn lies much further from us than is Mars. Right now, Mars lies an incredible 97 million miles from the Earth, or further than we are from the Sun. But beautiful Saturn is much further distant, nearly 920 million miles away, or nearly ten times further away than Mars!

Mars is only a little larger than half the size of Earth, while massive Saturn is more than nine times the size of our home planet, or incredibly 18 times larger than tiny Mars! And that is only the measurement of the planet, not even considering the diameter of Saturn’s amazing, expansive ring system, all of which is comprised of ice remnants, reflecting a lot of sunlight, and being much brighter than the rocky surface of Mars.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities.

• · William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.