This year, it seems quite poignant. Margaret Thatcher died today -- the Iron Lady of England. Love her or hate her, no-one can dispute that she had an enormous affect on her country and the World. So it seems appropriate to note that the Lyrid Meteor Shower is the result of the Earth smashing through the dusty tail of the Comet Thatcher.
Like other meteor showers, it takes its name from the constellation closest to where we impact the comet's tail -- in this instance, Lyra. As any Star Watcher who has been out on the lawns at Bondi for our Star Search knows, Lyra is part of the Summer Triangle, marked by the bright star Vega. It is, for those who have hung out with us, the one we nickname the "Tim Horton's Star" because Lyra features a funky star that is two double stars orbiting each other (Lyra Epsilon) -- a true cosmic Double Double. It is also home to the Ring Nebula, which resembles either a smoke ring or a squashy donut. And the base of the constellation looks a bit like the blade of a hockey stick. So, to help us remember to look for all those wonderful things, we give it the Tim Horton's handle.
Flakes of comet dust, usually smaller than grains of sand, smash into our atmoshpere at 49 kms/second (110,000 mph for those who didn't go metric but who like to speed). They disintegrate as streaks of light. The Lyrids are typically about as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper -- plenty bright enough to cause you to ooh and ahhh. Occasionally you'll catch one that is brighter than Venus -- called a Lyrid Fireball, which can cast a brief shadow and leave behind a smokey trail that lingers for minutes.
Take a cup of cocoa with you. There are commonly no more than 5 to 20 meteors per hour, so you will have time to relax. Sometimes, just sometimes, we glide through an unusually dense clump of debris and the rate goes up. In 1982, there were 90 per hour. And in 1803 (not that we remember it) a journalist in Richmond, Virginia wrote:
"Shooting stars. This electrical [sic] phenomenon was observed on Wednesday morning last at Richmond and its vicinity, in a manner that alarmed many, and astonished every person that beheld it. From one until three in the morning, those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets..."So here's the deal: Get up super early, or stay up late -- because the best comet watching is in the earliest part of the morning, well after midnight but long before the cock crows sort of thing. Dress warmly. Take a chair. Cozy down. Look up towards the East -- Vega is a bright star, 25 light years away. And while the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, their dim trails will all point back towards Vega.
And to the path blazed by Comet Thatcher.
So, Maggie, here's to you...
And here's to the Lyrid meteor shower.
You are both phenomenal.