Lyrid meteor shower peaks tonight

The Lyrid meteor shower is expected to peak tonight as Earth passes through the densest part of the dust trail left behind by Comet Thatcher, which last swung through the inner solar system in 1861.

This annual meteor shower lasts about 10 days, on average, starting around April 16th, peaking around the 22nd, and then ending sometime around April 25th or 26th. At its peak, watchers can spot about 20 meteors per hour, although that number can vary as Earth encounters different densities of dust from year to year.

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Apparently, observers were treated to a meteor storm in 1982, when the Earth passed through a particularly dusty part of the trail, and the sky was lit up with around 90 meteors per hour.

Last year, the shower actually had two peaks. The first was on April 22nd, giving us around 25 meteors per hour, and then it was followed up by an unexpectedly second peak on the 26th, showing off another 15 to 68 meteors per hour (depend on where you were).

Whether part of the same shower or just a coincidental event, a particularly large piece of rock entered the atmosphere on April 22nd, 2012, causing an exceptionally bright fireball and a loud sonic boom over California and Nevada. Pieces of this 'bolide' were recovered near Sutter's Mill, the location that started the California Gold Rush in 1848. The 2012 Sutter's Mill meteorite, as it came to be called, was estimated at being between 2 and 4 metres in diameter, and it exploded with a force of about a 4 kiloton nuclear bomb.

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Looking to the northeast after midnight tonight should give the best viewing, although the brightness of tonight's 'waxing gibbous' Moon might spoil some of the fun.

This Science@NASA video from last year will give you more details about the Lyrid meteor shower (although ignore the references to seeing Mars, since it's at Solar Conjunction right now, on the other side of the Sun from us):

(Image and video courtesy: NASA)

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