Tuesday, 25 June 2024

Oldest-known meteor shower to be visible early Wednesday morning

LAKE COUNTY – Local stargazers – get ready to start your day early on Wednesday.

The annual Lyrid meteor shower will be visible over North America on Wednesday, April 22, according to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration.

It's on that day that Earth will pass through a stream of dust given off by Comet Thatcher, NASA reported. Each April Earth passes through the comet's trail of debris.

Coincident with the meteor shower this year, the crescent moon and Venus will converge for a close encounter in the eastern sky. Viewed from some parts of the world, the Moon will pass directly in front of Venus, causing Venus to vanish, according to Dr. Tony Phillips of NASA.

The University of North Carolina's Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute reports that the Lyrids are best viewed between midnight and dawn from a clear, dark location with a good horizon.

Look to the northeast to find the meteors appearing to radiate out of the constellation of Lyra the harp. Binoculars or telescopes aren't needed. Then, as dawn approaches on April 22, note the brilliant planet Venus just to the left of the rising moon.

Lake County residents – along with other North American residents – will be favored with a full-blown eclipse or “occultation” when, around 5 a.m. Wednesday, Venus will disappear behind the mountainous rim of the Moon and reappear 60 to 90 minutes later, NASA reported. The occultation will be bright enough to see in broad daylight.

The Lyrids form the oldest recorded meteor shower, with observations of the Lyrids noted for at least 2,600 years, NASA reported. A Chinese account from 687 BC described the shower as having “stars that fell [like] rain.”

The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute reports that Comet Thatcher was first discovered in 1861, and revolves around the Sun every 415 years.

Flakes of comet dust, most no bigger than grains of sand, strike Earth's atmosphere traveling 110,000 mph and disintegrate as fast streaks of light, NASA reported. A typical Lyrid shower produces 10 to 20 meteors per hour over the northern hemisphere, not an intense display.

Occasionally, however, Earth passes through a dense region of the comet's tail and rates increase five- to ten-fold, NASA noted. In April 1803 there was a particularly dramatic appearance with a rate of about 700 meteors per hour. In 1982, observers counted 90 Lyrids per hour. Because Thatcher's tail has never been mapped in detail, the outbursts are unpredictable and could happen again at any time.

This year the Lyrids are predicted to reach a peak of about 20 meteors per hour on Wednesday, the institute reported.

NASA said Comet Thatcher spends most of its time well away from the planets, and is nearly immune to significant gravitational perturbations, which may be why the debris stream has remained stable and the Lyrid shower has been observed for so many centuries.

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