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Lyrids meteor shower to occur during new moon tonight

By Andy Grimm

Chicago Tribune

LAST UPDATED: 8:01 p.m. HST, Apr 21, 2012


CHICAGO >> Tonight promises to be a great night to be outdoors, if you’re a stargazer.

Tonight to early Sunday morning will be prime time to observe the Lyrids, Earth’s annual April shower of meteoroids from the tail of Comet Thatcher.

Most years, the Lyrids arrival rates solidly on the B-list of dates on the celestial calendar, but this spring the earth will sweep through the cloud of space dust during a new moon — meaning extra-dark skies will throw the shooting stars into sharper relief, said Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

“Conditions are particularly nice for the Lyrids this year, so as long as people are away from city lights. They should be a good show if people are patient,” Hammergren said.

Those looking skyward tonight should see 10 to 20 “shooting stars” per hour, provided they’re looking in the right direction. Lyrids will appear to stream from the northeast, streaking from the constellation Lyra, moving toward straight overhead as sunrise nears.

In some years, the Lyrids have produced bursts of up to 100 visible streaks per hour.

Most of the meteroids will range in size from BBs to a penny, and will shine about as bright as the stars. Comet Thatcher, which orbits the sun once every 400 years or so, won’t be visible, Hammergren points out.

Hammergren says that the Perseid shower in August tends to be more lively — 40 to 60 meteoroids per hour — and the weather warmer. And, of course, Adler also hosts a Perseid party each year.

For those interested in doing some stargazing from indoors, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will be hosting a live chat Saturday night, streaming video from its Allsky network, and attempting to capture 3-D images of the shower using cameras on the ground and mounted on an observation balloon.

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