If you see a shooting star, do you stop and make a wish? No? You should, it’s fun! OK, OK … so a shooting star isn’t really a “star,” nor is it “shooting.” It is a meteorite burning up upon re-entry into the Earth atmosphere. (I suppose that’s not as romantic a description as a shooting star, but hey, its science, and science is REAL!)
Tonight, if you are up after midnight and it’s a clear weather night, it just might be the best ever chance to see the Lyrid meteor shower. Every year, about this time in April, the Earth passes through the orbit of a comet called Thatcher. Thatcher is very far away from us now, having a very oblong orbit lasting approximately 415 years. It was discovered in 1861 right at the outbreak of the American Civil War.
Comets leave debris in their orbits as they melt on their way towards the sun. This debris then is stuck in that orbit until the comet returns and collects it again or until another object collides with it. When another object like the Earth collides with a meteorite (rarely bigger then a grain of rice), the meteorite will get caught in the friction of the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up as it moves across the sky. This is what causes such a bright streak, visible to the naked eye.
The Lyrid meteor shower is less spectacular than its counterparts in February (Perseids) and November (Leonids), only boasting 10-20 streaks per hour. However, tomorrow is expected to be one of the best performances of the little meteor shower, since there is a new moon, leaving the sky very dark.
Watching the Lyrids is simple enough. All you need to do is get to a place where there is no (or as little as possible) light pollution and get comfortable. You have to watch carefully because the streaks usually don’t last for more then a second or two. The streaks could appear anywhere in the sky, though they’ll seem to come from the constellation Lyra in the northeast.
If you are curious about your weather prospects for the evening, check out The Weather Channel or Weather Underground. Unless you are expecting a clear night, it is probably not worth getting out of bed at all. You can’t see any meteorites through a cloud layer, so take the time and get some rest instead.
Oh, and when you see that bright little streak across the sky, go ahead, make a wish. It can’t hurt, can it?