A Shower of Stellar Debris
The new moon in the nether hours between Friday and Saturday leaves this weekend’s night skies clear for the annual Lyrid meteor shower, which peaks Saturday-Sunday.
While the Lyrids seldom storm like the Perseids and the Geminids, they are reliable stalwarts, with recorded sightings dating back in China more than 2,500 years. The Lyrids, producing long glowing trails that can last several seconds, range between 10 to 20 meteors an hour. Every so often, however, they go wild, raining up to 100 meteors an hour, like in 1982 when it rained a couple hundred in the course of a few minutes. Or in 1803, when Richmond residents sounded the fire alarm thinking the storm of meteors was a blazing inferno.
Each year Earth passes through the stream of dust and debris trailing Comet Thatcher in its orbit around the sun. The tiny bits of ice and dust slam into Earth’s atmosphere at 30 miles a second, igniting into the streaks of light we commonly call shooting stars. Those streaking through the heavens are meteors; any that strike the planet’s surface are meteorites.
The meteors appear to emanate from the constellation Lyra the harp, and the best time to catch them is between 2am and sunrise. While Saturday-Sunday should be the peak, don’t be surprised to see an errant meteor or even a few over the following nights.
Lyra is one of the oldest constellations, punctuated by Vega, the fifth-brightest star. At the dawn of civilization 12,000 years ago, Vega was the Pole Star, marking true celestial north. The ancient Mesopotamians built their temples to align with Vega’s annual zenith. However, because Earth wobbles on a 231⁄2-degree axis, celestial north shifts every few thousand years in what is called the precession of the equinoxes.