Lyrid meteor shower peaks Earth Day morning: how to watch

We're in for a special treat for this year's Earth Day celebration tomorrow. The Lyrid meteor shower is going on right now and will reach its peak early in the morning on April 22, just in time to kick off the festivities.

Although cloudy skies over various parts of Canada are going to limit what people can see, the radiant of the shower – the point in the sky where the meteor streaks all seem to radiate from – rises right around 9 p.m., whatever local time zone you are in. Look to the northeast, between the constellations of Lyra and Hercules, near the bright star Vega, to find the exact point. However, the best view of the meteor shower will be found simply by looking straight up.

The exact peak of the shower actually starts in the early morning hours on Tuesday, when the radiant is roughly straight overhead. The light from the last-quarter moon (which rises around 2 a.m.) may wash out some of the dimmer meteors, but the Lyrids are known for being fairly bright, so the shower should still put on a good show.

If the weather doesn't cooperate with you for seeing the shower (check your sky conditions here), don't despair. The peak will persist into Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, when at least most of the regions of the country that are expected to be clouded over going into Tuesday morning should have clear skies again for viewing.

The Lyrid meteor shower — or 'the Lyrids' — is an annual meteor shower caused by Earth passing though debris left behind by a comet called C/1861 G1 (Thatcher), or just Comet Thatcher. As the comet makes its over-400-year-long orbit around the sun, its path takes it right through Earth's orbit. The tiny grains of dust and ice blasted off by the heat of the sun form a trail along that path, and each year, right about the same time in April, the planet sweeps through that trail. The grains hit our atmosphere travelling at just shy of 50 kilometres per second (or 180,000 km/h), and light up the air around them due to the friction and pressure, forming the bright meteor trails.

[ More Geekquinox: Russian dashboard cameras capture bright blue fireball over city of Murmansk ]

Although most years, this shower produces about 20 or so meteors per hour, some years it's been known to produce an outburst of up to 100 per hour. According to SpaceWeather.com, this is due to "unmapped filaments of dust in the comet's tail." However, astronomers have figured out that this happens every 60 years or so. One particularly strong storm from this shower happened in 1803, when over 700 per hour were recorded. This repeated in 1862, 1922 and 1982, although the numbers were closer to 100. So, very likely we'll have to wait until 2042 for the next one, however meteor showers sometimes surprise us, and the Lyrids are also known to produce some bright fireballs.

Perhaps coincidentally, early Saturday morning, at just after 2 a.m. Moscow Time, a bright fireball flashed through the sky over Murmansk, Russia. Two similar events happened just two years ago during or around the Lyrid meteor shower. A bolide — a very bright, exploding meteor — was seen in the skies over Nevada and California on April 22, 2012, which caused a sonic boom across both states. Several pieces of the meteoroid survived to impact, and are known as the Sutter's Mill meteorite. Another was apparently seen over Guatemala just eight days later (although the image used in the report is of one over the Netherlands in 2009). Neither of those two are specifically linked to the Lyrids, but for the Murmansk one, it's possible. It will be up to the meteoriticists (scientists who study meteors and meteorites) to figure it out.

(Images courtesy: Don Pettit/NASA, Stellarium)

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