Shooting stars to brighten our skies for Earth Day

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Shooting stars are set to brighten the skies for Earth Day
Shooting stars are set to brighten the skies for Earth Day
WikiMedia Commons

As the world celebrates Earth Day on Thursday (April 22), those on the blue planet will be rewarded with a display of meteors lighting up the night skies.

The Lyrid meteor shower began on April 14 and will continue until April 30, peaking on April 22. It can be seen from 2 am until dawn.

Rushing over the night skies at 49 kms per second, South Africans can expect to see around 15 to 18 meteors per hour in perfect conditions.

The best chance of seeing them will be away from city lights in clear weather.

The meteor shower will be seen all over the earth, but those in the northern hemisphere will be able to catch a better glimpse of it than those in the southern hemisphere.

Accuweather reports that a few lucky onlookers may even spot incredibly bright meteors known as fireballs, which are periodically seen around the time that the Lyrids peak.

The shower is produced by dust particles left behind by a comet discovered in 1861.

According to Nasa comet C/1861 G1 (Thatcher)  takes 415.5 years to orbit the sun once.

Comet Thatcher last reached its closest approach to the sun in 1861. It’s known as a long period comet, meaning it has an orbital periods of over 200 years.

“When comets come around the sun, the dust they emit gradually spreads into a dusty trail around their orbits. Every year the Earth passes through these debris trails, which allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere where they disintegrate to create fiery and colourful streaks in the sky,” said an info piece by Nasa.

Nasa said the Lyrids are one of the oldest known meteor showers and have been observed for 2 700 years. The first recorded sighting of a Lyrid meteor shower goes back to 687 BC when it was seen by the Chinese.

Nasa said comets are usually named for their discoverer(s) or for the name of the observatory/telescope used in the discovery. “The letter "C" indicates that comet Thatcher is a long period comet and is not expected to return to the inner solar system in less than 200 years. 1861 stands for the year of discovery. The "G" indicates the first half of April and "1" means Thatcher was the first comet discovered in that half-month period.” advises that those wanting to see the Lyrids should go outside, find a dark spot and look north north-east near the constellation of Lyra for the Lyrids radiant

According to the website, these small dust grains (meteoroids) are distributed along the parent comet's orbit concentrated close to the comet nucleus with fewer grains farther away from the nucleus.

"Every time the Earth passes through this stream of dust particles (i.e. meteor stream), we experience what is known as a Lyrids meteor shower. These brief streaks of light from meteors, sometimes called "shooting stars", peak on Earth Day when the earth moves through the centre of the dust trail left behind by the comet.

“Meteor showers are strictly for night owls or early risers. The best time to view the Lyrids is from around 2 am to dawn when they'll be in the north. They are fast and bright with some trains. You should be able to see 18 streaks an hour or more during the peak."

In early May, star watchers in the Southern hemisphere are in for another special treat.  The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is the best meteor shower of the year for the Southern Hemisphere and produces around 40 to 60 meteors per hour, nearly one per minute.



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