A famous, faint, and fickle meteor shower is at its best the next couple of nights. It's generally not a great show, but the Moon will be out of the way for part of the night, providing dark skies for the few meteors that do streak by.
The Lyrid meteor shower is the spawn of a comet that visits the inner solar system once every four centuries. As the comet approaches the Sun, part of its icy surface vaporizes, releasing tiny bits of rock into space.
Over time, these grains of comet dust spread out along the comet's orbital path. When Earth flies through this path, some of the grains plunge into our atmosphere at high speed, vaporizing as incandescent streaks of light.
Most Lyrids are pretty faint. And most years, there aren't many of them -- up to about 10 per hour. But every once in a while, that rate jumps to about a hundred. Astronomers aren't sure why that's the case, so they can't predict which years are good ones.
As seen from here in the United States, the shower should be at its best before dawn on Friday. The Moon will set by 1 or 2 o'clock, leaving dark skies for the show. The meteors all appear to "rain" into the atmosphere from near Vega, the brightest star of the constellation Lyra. But they can streak across any portion of the sky, so you don't need to look at Lyra to see them. Just find a dark but safe location away from city lights, and cast your eyes toward the sky for the faint but fascinating Lyrid meteors.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
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