Keep your eye on the sky Sunday evening; the Lyrid meteor shower is expected to peak. It's the first meteor shower of the spring season.
The Lyrid shower is caused by Earth passing through the orbit of a comet known as Thatcher, though the comet itself hasn't been seen since 1861. Dust particles from the comet will be seen as flashes of light as they burn up in our atmosphere.
Kelly Beatty, senior contributing editor for Sky and Telescope magazine, tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin that the best time to watch will be in the early hours of Monday morning, just before dawn.
"The nice thing about meteor showers is that they are very widespread," Beatty says. "This shower lasts about a day and a half."
Beatty also recommends finding a place that is dark, without a lot of street lights, to have the best odds of seeing the flashes of light in the sky.
"Meteor showers are truly magical," he says. "It's like the universe communicating with us on some primal level. Meteors are the cosmos in action."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Keep your eye on the sky this evening. The Lyrid meteor shower is expected to peak tonight. It is the first meteor shower of the spring season. For more, we turn to Kelly Beatty. He is the senior contributing editor for Sky and Telescope magazine. And he joins us on the line from his home in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Thanks so much for joining us, Kelly.
KELLY BEATTY: Oh, my pleasure, Rachel.
MARTIN: If you wouldn't mind just describing what happens during a meteor shower.
BEATTY: Meteors in general are little bits of space rock that intersect our atmosphere, and as they burn up they give off this flash of light. Meteor showers occur when Earth plows through the orbit of a comet. In this case, it's the comet known as Comet Thatcher, which was last seen in 1861 and hasn't been seen since. But we still cross its orbit every year. And when that happens, every April 22nd, we get a little peppering of these dust particles left along the orbit of the comet.
MARTIN: So, in terms of watching this happen, can you see this anywhere in the country or do you need to be in a particular region of the United States?
BEATTY: The nice thing about meteor showers is that they are very widespread. This shower lasts about a day and a half. So, if you're getting up before dawn on the 22nd, it's going to be the best chance no matter where you are.
MARTIN: So, if someone listening to us right now has never seen a meteor shower before but you have convinced them, Kelly, that they should set their alarm and get up early and try to catch a glimpse of the Lyrid meteor shower, what should stand out to them?
BEATTY: First of all, make sure that you're dressed warmly enough, 'cause it can still be cool on an April morning. Find a place that's dark. You don't have to drive 50 miles out into the country, but don't be in direct view of a street light or a mall in your neighborhood or something. Just find a spot that's dark. And look into the area of the sky that is darkest. And what you want to look for is a brief flash of light. A shooting star is what we call these things. And these are little bits, probably no bigger than grains of sand or maybe at most the size of a pea that are entering the Earth's atmosphere very high up. They're traveling at about 30 miles a second when they strike our atmosphere. And this causes them to become incandescent flashes of light in the sky. And that's what we see as meteors.
MARTIN: What do you love about watching something like this? It sounds, I imagine, a little bit magical.
BEATTY: I think meteor showers are truly magical because it's like the universe communicating with us on some sort of basic primal level. You know, when you go outside and you look at stars, unless you're really watching them for a long time, they're kind of unmoving, but meteors are the cosmos in action. And that's what I love about them.
MARTIN: Kelly Beatty. He is the senior contributing editor with Sky and Telescope magazine. Thank you so much for the tips, Kelly. I really appreciate it.
BEATTY: Take care.
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MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.