A meteor or shooting star occurs when a tiny piece of space rock enters the Earth’s upper atmosphere at very high speed. The friction with the air causes the rock to heat up and produce a short streak of light as the meteor burns up. If you go outside on any given night and wait long enough you will probably see at least one or two meteors. But at certain times of the year the Earth passes through the debris trail left behind by a comet and instead of seeing one or two meteors we get to witness a meteor shower of many meteors streaking across the sky.
The debris from the comet trail is usually many thousands of miles wide and so the meteor shower can last for several days (nights) as the Earth passes through it. At the moment the Earth is passing through the debris trail of Comet Thatcher and tonight and tomorrow morning we pass through the densest part of the trail and should see up to 30 meteors per hour streak across the sky. Comet Thatcher is a long period comet taking about 415 years to orbit the Sun, the last time it was in our part of the Solar System was in 1861 and it won’t be back until 2276. The meteors in the shower produced all seem to radiate from one point in the sky near to the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra the Lyre, or harp, and so the shower is named the Lyrid meteor shower.
You don’t need any special equipment to watch the meteors; simply wrap up warm and lie back on a reclining seat or sun lounger and look up. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky but if you follow a line backward then they all emanate from near to Vega. Vega is one of the brightest stars in the sky and helps to make up the ‘Summer Triangle’ asterism; it can be found about half way up the sky toward the southeast. The most meteors will be seen during the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning when our part of the Earth is heading directly into the debris field, and as the moon will be out of the way for most of the night this year’s shower could be spectacular.
But be patient, it is no use just sticking your head out of the window during the TV adverts and hoping to see meteors. You need to be in an area away from streetlights and dedicate an hour or two to just looking up and you will be rewarded. Of course if you do see a shooting star be sure to make a wish as they always come true!