“Look up, it’s a bird, it’s a plane”
No, it’s not Superman, but it is super-natural. The superheroes of the sky this week will be the Lyrid meteors, showering the night sky with a light show from April 16 to 22.
This pyrotechnic display is best seen during the nights of April 21 and 22, weather permitting. The peak meteor showers will only yield five to twenty meteors per hour, unless we are lucky enough to have an “outburst.” An outburst occurs when an exceptionally dense clump of debris passes through our atmosphere; one might yield almost 100 meteors per hour!
Rain and clouds can foil your plans for a late night rendezvous, as can a bright moon. Luckily for us, the moon will be waning during the shower, so it will not be bright enough to wash out the show.
Only night owls need apply for a date with the Lyrids. The best time to look for these meteors is after midnight, preferably between 3 a.m. and dawn. If you can’t bear to stay up late this year, you can always try again next year or even the year after, since the Lyrids occur annually, and have been for many years. The Lyrids can claim to be the longest-running meteor show in the sky. They were first observed more than 2,600 years ago. During a shower in 687 B.C., the Chinese noted that the “stars fell like rain.”
Meteors are not actually stars, though. To be accurate, Chinese wisdom aside, the bursts of light produced are the result of dust particles from a comet (in the case of the Lyrids, the comet Thatcher) burning up in our atmosphere as the earth passes through the comet’s debris. These particles move fast, having been clocked at 110,000 miles per hour; about 30 miles per second. Even Superman would have a hard time keeping up.
To find the Lyrid meteors, it helps to know a few constellations. Meteors are named for the constellation from which they appear to originate. This is called their “radiant.” Thus, the radiant of the Lyrids is Lyra, the Leonids hail from Leo, and the Perseids descend from Perseus. Locating Lyra is not too difficult, since its principal star is Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky. Vega is three times wider than the sun and about twenty-five light years away from the earth.
The Lyrid meteors are not quite as radiant as their radiant, Lyra, is. They shine as brightly as the Big Dipper, which is considered moderately bright.
Though Vega is the “star” of the constellation Lyra, Lyra has its own story. Lyra is associated with the myth of Orpheus. Orpheus was a musician who played the lyre, a harp-like instrument. When Orpheus was killed and his lyre was thrown into the river, Zeus was displeased, and sent an eagle to retrieve the instrument. To remember Orpheus and his beautiful music, Zeus placed both the eagle and the lyre in the sky together and they became the constellation Lyra.
So, the lyre in Lyra is still making beautiful music today, with its annual light show thrown in for good measure. Not bad staying power, after unknown thousands of years!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.