Jimmy Westlake: April’s shower of meteors
April not only brings rain and snow showers to the mountains of Northwest Colorado, but it also brings the annual Lyrid meteor shower. The Lyrid meteor shower is the oldest on record, having been observed each year for over 2000 years.
The ancient Chinese recorded that April Lyrid meteors “fell like rain” in the year 5 B.C., and, in the year 1803, a reporter from Richmond, Virginia, noted that “those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets…”
Nowadays, the Lyrid meteor shower is much more modest, producing around 20 meteors, or falling stars, each hour, but occasionally producing a flurry of many more. Its unpredictability is one reason to always keep an eye on the Lyrid meteor shower for surprises.
A shower of meteors happens whenever the Earth encounters the trail of an old comet that has filled up with dusty debris, in this case, Comet Thatcher, which was last seen in the year 1861.
When one of these dust particles hits the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 30 miles per second, it glows brightly and burns up, about 60 miles over our heads. In the blink of an eye, a cosmic dust speck ends its journey as a colorful flash of light in our night sky — what we call a meteor.
On any given night of the year, a single observer can expect to see five or six random meteors per hour of sky watching, but on the night of a meteor shower, that number can jump dramatically.
This year, on Tuesday night, April 21 into Wednesday morning, April 22, the Earth will pass through the Lyrid dust swarm, creating 20 or more beautiful falling stars per hour. You can see them in any part of the sky, but you’ll have your best view facing the northeastern sky after the crescent moon has set around 11:30 p.m.
These meteors are called Lyrid meteors because they seem to fan out from a point in the sky within the constellation of Lyra, the Harp, near the bright star Vega. Lyrid meteors are very swift and about one in four will leave a persistent smoke train after the meteor has faded.
Remember, more meteors are seen after midnight than before midnight, so pull out that warm sleeping bag, kick back in a lounge chair or in the back of a truck, and watch the celestial fireworks before dawn on April 22.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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