Sky watchers have been starved of shooting stars since the start of the new year. But this weekend, the Lyrid meteor shower, which has been teasing sky viewers since mid-April, will put on a full show Saturday evening and into the early morning on Sunday. The showers can still be seen in spectacular glimpses until the end of April.
One of the oldest-known meteor showers, the Lyrid shows up reliably every April when the Earth barges through a debris field left by a comet in 1861. Tiny particulates, the size of a piece of sand, heat up as they are met by friction from the Earth’s atmosphere and then begin to light up, creating a meteor. Bright meteors — and the occasional fireball — caused by debris explosions, move quickly through the sky and leave without a trace, or a trail.
People worldwide may be able to see from 15 to 20 meteors per hour at the peak — only about five meteors per hour will be visible in the days following the peak.
The meteor show, which appears to radiate from the constellation of Lyra, will be in full swing starting at 9 p.m. on Saturday for folks on the East Coast, according to the American Meteor Society.
NASA ambassador Tony Rice dubbed this year’s show “the convenient meteor shower” because of the convenient timing, convenient temperatures outside and convenient viewing opportunities.
For best viewing, Rice suggests watching the sunset toward the western sky, waiting until dark, and then turning around to the northeastern sky to look for meteors. The meteors will be flying up from the horizon, Rice said.
After Thursday’s new moon, there won’t be a visible moon in the sky this weekend to interfere with sighting the slinging meteors. The dark sky will serve as a canvas for the short streaks of light.
On Friday night, low pressure over the Great Lakes and Ontario will keep pesky clouds around. Clouds will also predominate around and ahead of a cold front in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Ohio Valley and the Southeast. Behind the front, a sharp line of clearing will hover over the central and lower Mississippi Valley, the Gulf Coast west of Alabama, the Ozarks and the Southern Plains. Chicago and the Corn Belt may see some clearing, but it will depend on how quickly the parent low-pressure system moves on.
Things become trickier in Oklahoma, the Rockies, the Intermountain West and the West Coast. Cirrus clouds will likely be fanning overhead in the jet stream. While it won’t be enough to fully obscure the night sky, the wispy clouds will likely hamper stargazing and the spotting of any meteors. There will be plenty of gaps in the cloud cover, but forecasting where they’ll be is impossible at this time range. Southern Arizona and New Mexico, however, should enjoy clear skies.
By Saturday night, the same low-pressure system and cold front over the eastern United States is expected to work into northern Michigan and southeastern Ontario. Clearing skies will spread over much of the Southeast, the Mid-Atlantic, Pennsylvania, New York State and the Midwest. The system will still be hung up around New England with persistent overcast.
The Northern Plains and northern Rockies should see mostly clear conditions, but the southern Plains and Texas will be socked in beneath cloud cover.
Central and Southern California and the Desert Southwest look to be mostly clear except for isolated patchy high clouds. An approaching low pressure system is expected to spread clouds over the Pacific Northwest.
The spectacle is a “naked eye” event, meaning no equipment is necessary to enjoy the view, said Geoff Chester, an astronomer from the Naval Observatory. And fireball sightings could even be spotted in cities, despite light pollution.
In the past, the Lyrids were known to have short bursts of 100 meteors per hour, but those odds are “possible, but not probable” this year, Rice said. Those rapid bursts happen every 20 to 60 years. The next predicted Lyrid outburst, characterized by an unexpectedly large number of meteors, is due in 2042, according to EarthSky.
If you want to see the shooting stars, you may have to show some patience. It could take your eyes 10 to 15 minutes to adjust to the dark sky before you see the meteors.
“I’m just excited to be able to go out and look at the meteor shower when it’s warm outside, and I don’t have to set my alarm to do it,” Rice said.