Lyrid Meteor Shower: Shooting Stars, and New Moon Helps

PHOTO: The Quadrantid meteor shower as captured by a photographer in Suffolk, England, is shown.PlayCourtesy Dennis Boon
WATCH Comet Seen From Space Station

Go outside after midnight Saturday night, and if the Lyrid meteor shower of 2012 is good to you, you will be able to see the sky falling.

Every year at this time, the Earth passes through the orbit of an old comet called Thatcher, and the result is a meteor shower -- shooting stars, usually about 10 to 20 per hour, streaking across the night sky as debris from the comet enters the Earth's atmosphere and burns up.

The comet is far away from us now; Thatcher orbits the sun once every 415 years in a long, elliptical orbit. But debris from it has spread out along its path, mostly pieces of dust or rock smaller than grains of sand. As they come slicing into the upper atmosphere, at speeds of more than 100,000 mph, they burn up 50 to 70 miles over our heads. It is a quiet, vivid way for them to end.

The Lyrids are one of the weaker annual meteor showers (most skywatchers prefer the Perseids in August or the Geminids in December), but this year the Lyrids coincide with a new moon. That means the sky will be darker and the seeing will be better.

Be alert; most meteors streak by in a second or less, sometimes in clusters. The best way to see them is to find a nice, dark place with no street lights and as few trees as possible, and look up. You may be happiest in a lawn chair or a sleeping bag. The streaks could appear anywhere in the sky, though they'll seem to come from the constellation Lyra in the northeast.

"Typical Lyrids are about as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper," said Bill Cooke, who heads NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. "And it's not unusual to see one or two fireballs when the shower peaks." So-called fireballs happen if an unusually large piece of debris makes it into the lower atmosphere, breaking up -- sometimes audibly -- at altitudes of less than 20 miles from Earth.

In general, there are more shooting stars in the morning hours because the morning side of the Earth faces forward as we orbit the sun, so it's less shielded. While the shower actually peaks Sunday morning, meteors are often spotted several nights before and after.

You don't need any special equipment, though a lawn chair and a sleeping bag might be good to bring along. Get away from cities if you have the option. Patience helps. Let us know if you're up and see anything.

Go to our weather page for conditions near you. If it's cloudy -- well, go back to bed and get a good night's sleep.

Astronomers will tell you that meteor showers are best if you regard them as something to be savored, rather than awed by. But if you're lucky, it will be a pleasant, restful show. And you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that Chicken Little was half-right: The sky will indeed be falling ... harmlessly.