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Lights Off, Eyes Open: New Moon Darkens Skies For Meteor Shower
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Lights Off, Eyes Open: New Moon Darkens Skies For Meteor Shower

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People have been observing the Lyrid meteor shower for more than 2,000 years. And tonight, watchers in North America will get their best chance when it peaks. While not as spectacular as the Perseid and some other meteor displays, the Lyrid can surprise you with its intensity. Joining us to help handicap this year's event is Kelly Beatty, senior contributing editor for Sky and Telescope magazine. He's at member station WBUR in Boston.

Thanks so much for being with us.

KELLY BEATTY: Oh, my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: So this could be a good season for the Lyrid shower?

BEATTY: It can. The Lyrids, while not really strong, will benefit this year from the fact that the bright moon won't be in the sky and the skies will be nice and dark. And, you know, it's an unpredictable shower. Although ordinarily you might see one every five minutes or so, it's not unprecedented to see one, you know, 40 or 50 an hour.

SIMON: And where's the best view?

BEATTY: The best view is wherever you can get to where it's dark. For every bright one you see, there will be many more faint ones. And to see the faint ones you need a dark sky.

SIMON: The sky's a pretty big place. Where should we turn our head?

BEATTY: Well, the funny thing is that you can see these meteors in any part of the sky that's darkest for you. But if you trace them back, they'll all appear to come from the constellation Lyra, which is rising over the eastern horizon in late evening. And as Lyra gets higher up in the sky the meteors should be become a little bit more plentiful. So the best bet is actually to get up before dawn on Sunday morning and that's when they should be maximized.

SIMON: Could you remind us, what are we actually seeing when we see a meteor shower?

BEATTY: There's a comet called Thatcher, which last came through this region of the solar system in 1861. And it's in an orbit that lasts more than 300 years. As it goes around, it spreads out debris, kind of like dust coming off of a truck. And it spreads around its orbit and every April we plow through those little dust particles.

They flash in our atmosphere maybe 60 or 80 miles up and each one of those creates a little meteor when it goes through the atmosphere. So when these little particles hit the atmosphere they're traveling at 30 miles per second. And all of that energy gets transferred to the air molecules around them. They get heated up to thousands of degrees and it's that super hot air that gives off the light more than the little particle itself.

SIMON: Boy. Is there a next meteor shower to look forward to?

BEATTY: There are about eight or ten meteor showers every year that we can count on. All of these are places where Earth is passing through the path of a comet - one comet or another. Some meteor showers are from Halley's Comet. Others are from comets that no one's ever heard of, like the Perseus, but they are nonetheless very spectacular.

SIMON: Kelly Beatty, senior contributing editor for Sky and Telescope magazine. Thanks so much and good meteor shower watching to you, sir.

BEATTY: And to you, too, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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