The pre-dawn hours of Earth Day this year bring the Lyrid meteor shower, during which fragments of Comet Thatcher (no relation to iconic Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, who was laid to rest this past week) will rain down in a cosmic reminder of the vastness of space.
“This year the shower peaks on Monday morning, April 22nd,” says Spaceweather.com. “Forecasters expect 10 to 20 meteors per hour, although outbursts as high as 100 meteors per hour are possible.”
Comet Thatcher itself will not be visible, since it only flies by our planet once every 415 years, according to Space.com. We are merely passing through the dust of its tail. From our vantage point on Earth, the meteors emanate from Vega, the bright star in the constellation known today as Lyra, Spaceweather.com says.
“Vega is a brilliant blue-white star about three times wider than our Sun and 25 light years away,” Spaceweather.com explains. “You might have seen Vega in Carl Sagan's movie Contact. It was the source of alien radio transmissions to Earth.”
Moonlight may well impede the view, given that the moon becomes full on April 25, three days later, Space.com noted. Away from urban areas there might be as many as 20 meteors per hour, say astronomers from the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs the Hubble Telescope program for NASA at Johns Hopkins University and is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). But the moon’s specter caused NASA meteor scientist Bill Cooke to tell Space.com that it might only be about 10 per hour at peak viewing times.
The Lyrids go back at least 2,600 years, if not longer, Universe Today reports, making them the oldest known recorded meteor shower. On March 16, 687 B.C., “stars fell like rain,” the ancient Chinese wrote, according to Universe Today.
“Apparently the shower was more active in the past and has since evolved into a minor display,” Universe Today noted. “But there have been occasional surprises, and that’s what keeps the Lyrids interesting.”