Friday night meteor shower: for drunks, insomniacs

Today's weather will feature flaming space rubble raining mercilessly from the heavens. That's right: After more than three months of fireball-less night skies, the western hemisphere is due for a meteor shower. (Whether we'll see it is another question.)

The Lyrids reach their peak tonight into early Saturday; the best time to catch them is during the drowsy hours right before dawn. This spring shower, which has a short lifespan generally lasting from April 16 to the 26th, isn't the most eye-popping display. The meteors can be argent enough to cast shadows on the ground and often leave behind smoking trails, but their average rate crawls along at about 5 to 20 per hour. That's not exactly a strong motivation to set the Mr. Coffee auto-timer extra early on Saturday.

Yet the shower has a unique, mercurial streak that demands attention. Every so often, the Lyrids inexplicably blow up in an epic cannonade that illuminates the entire hemisphere. During these freak events 100 or more falling stars may shell the earth each hour. One of the most famous times this happened was in April 1803. In Richmond, townsfolk were called to the streets by a bell that was ringing for a conflagration in a nearby armory.

Instead of seeing smoke and flames, however, their eyeballs lit up with the alarming reflection of an incandescent sky swarming with meteors. According to a contemporary account in the Virginia Gazette:

From one until three, those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets.... [S]everal of those shooting meteors were accompanied with a train of fire that illuminated the sky for a considerable distance.... During the continuance of this remarkable phenomenon a hissing noise in the air was plainly heard, and several reports resembling the discharge of a pistol.

So what exactly are the Lyrids?

They're grains of dust shooting from the tailpipe of Comet Thatcher. You can trace them as they emit from their radiant point near the blue-white star Vega in the Lyra constellation. (Here's a star chart showing where to look, and this is a great interactive site to find constellations based on your ZIP code.) The Lyrids are the oldest observed meteor shower – a Chinese witness described stars that "dropped down like rain” during a 687 B.C. outbreak – yet astronomers don't really know how to predict these paroxysms of Hulk-like rage, which occur whenever the earth passes through a particularly thick part of Thatcher's tail.

Could this be the year for another outburst? Unfortunately, a waning-gibbous moon will make it difficult to tell with lunar light pollution obscuring all but the brightest meteors. Clouds and showers in the forecast compound the less-than-optimal sighting conditions. Still, if this Arlington resident managed to see a fireball during Saturday's stormy weather, there's hope yet for D.C. skygazers.