The Lyrid meteor shower will leave ‘glowing dust trains’ across the sky on Thursday. Here’s how to watch.

lyrids meteor shower
A Lyrid meteor in the sky above Schermbeck, Germany on April 22, 2020.

  • The Lyrid meteor shower peaks early Thursday morning. People can spot 10 to 20 meteors per hour.
  • The meteors are leftovers from a nearby comet, and burn up when they enter our atmosphere.
  • The moon will be more than half full, so seeing the shower will be tricky. Here’s how to watch.
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The first meteor shower of spring is peaking Thursday morning.

The Lyrid meteor shower, which happens in late April each year, occurs when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet. As debris from that comet enters our planet’s atmosphere, it burns up, leaving streaks in the sky that are visible to the naked eye for several seconds.

When the Lyrids peak, people can expect to see between 10 and 20 meteors every hour. These meteors often leave “glowing dust trains” in their wake as they disintegrate, according to NASA.

The moon is more than half full this week, which will make it trickier to spot the shooting stars. Here are some tips for catching the Lyrids in action.

Head out early Thursday morning, before the sun rises

lyrids meteor shower
The Lyrid meteor shower over the ancient city of Aizanoi in Kutahya, Turkey on April 23, 2014.

The best time to glimpse the Lyrids is in the wee morning hours on Thursday, April 22, before the sun rises.

Waiting until the waxing moon sets – about 4 a.m. on the US East Coast – will make it easier to spot the meteors and their dust trains. Otherwise, the bright glow from the almost-full moon (it’ll be 68% full on Thursday) may obscure the meteor streaks.

Head to an area well away from a city or street lights, and bring a sleeping bag or blanket. No need to pack a telescope or binoculars, since meteor showers are best seen with the naked eye.

“Lie flat on your back with your feet facing east and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible,” NASA’s website said. “After about 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt and you will begin to see meteors.”

The shooting stars can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you need a reference point, look to the harp-like constellation Lyra, from which the Lyrids often seem to emerge. (That’s how they get their name.)

If you miss out on the show Thursday morning, there will still be meteors to see Friday. In fact, the Lyrid meteor shower this year will continue through April 30. Usually, it ends by April 25.

One of the oldest-known meteor showers

lyrids meteor shower
Don Pettit, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, photographs a Lyrid meteor on April 1, 2012.

Humanity has known about the Lyrid meteor shower for almost three millennia: The first sighting dates back to 687 BC in China, according to NASA.

The meteors hail from a comet called Thatcher, named after the astronomer who first identified the space rock in 1861.

It takes Thatcher 415 years to orbit the sun (we won’t see it again until the year 2276). As it circles the solar system, Thatcher’s tail leaves behind a trail of debris and leftover comet particles.

Every April, Earth passes through Thatcher’s debris and gets bombarded with comet litter for two weeks – which makes for a dazzling meteor shower.

After the Lyrids pass, there are still 11 meteor showers to look out for this year. One of the most popular, the Perseids, will peak on the night of August 11.

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The mysterious interstellar object ‘Oumuamua was a chunk of planet from another solar system, a new study says

Oumuamua asteroid
An artist’s impression shows interstellar object `Oumuamua as it passed through the solar system in October 2017.

The origin and identity of a massive space object that careened past Earth in 2017 have remained a mystery ever since.

The object, called ‘Oumuamua – a Hawaiian name meaning “scout” or “messenger” – traveled on a trajectory that strongly suggested it came from another star system. That made it the first interstellar object ever detected.

But what was it? A few researchers, including Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb, posited the object was an alien spacecraft. Others suggested it was an asteroid, or perhaps an interstellar comet.

Now, a pair of papers published in an American Geophysical Union journal offers another theory: that ‘Oumuamua was shrapnel from a tiny planet in a different solar system.

“We’ve probably resolved the mystery of what ‘Oumuamua is, and we can reasonably identify it as a chunk of an ‘exo-Pluto,’ a Pluto-like planet in another solar system,” Steven Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and a co-author of the new study, said in a press release.

A planetary fragment made of frozen nitrogen

Desch and his coauthors think that half a billion years ago, a space object struck ‘Oumuamua’s parent planet. That sent ‘Oumuamua careening towards our solar system.

Once it neared the sun, their thinking goes, ‘Oumuamua sped up as sunlight vaporized its icy body. Comets follow a similar movement pattern, known as the “rocket effect.”

Because ‘Oumuamua’s makeup is unknown, the researchers calculated what kinds of ice would sublimate (change from solid to gas) at a rate that could account for ‘Oumuamua’s rocket effect. They concluded that the object is likely made of nitrogen ice, like the surface of Pluto and Pluto’s moon Triton.

pluto planet
An enhanced-color view of Pluto, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

As it got approached our solar system – and therefore the sun – ‘Oumuamua started sloughing off frozen nitrogen layers. The object entered our solar system in 1995, though we didn’t realize it at the time, then subsequently lost 95% of its mass and melted away to a sliver, according to the study authors.

It’s a comet. It’s an asteroid. Nope, it’s neither.

oumuamua 1I 2017 u1 solar system trajectory illustration comet asteroid or alien spaceship nasa swri esa stsci PIA22357_fig1
An illustration of the space object ‘Oumuamua flying through the solar system in late 2017.

By the time astronomers became aware of ‘Oumuamua’s existence in 2017, it was already zipping away from Earth at 196,000 mph. So they had only a few weeks to study the strange, skyscraper-sized object. Several telescopes on the ground and one in space took limited observations as the object flew away, but astronomers were unable to examine it in full. ‘Oumuamua is now too far away and too dim to observe further with existing technologies.

The limited nature of the information gathered left room for scientists to offer guesses about what the object might be and where it came from. ‘Oumuamua was initially classified as a comet, but it didn’t appear to be made of ice, and it didn’t emit gases as a comet would.

‘Oumuamua’s spin, speed, and trajectory couldn’t be explained by gravity alone, which suggested it was not an asteroid either. And the object’s shape and profile – it’s about one-quarter of a mile long but only 114 feet wide – doesn’t match that of any comet or asteroid observed before.

According to the authors of the new study, however, ‘Oumuamua’s frozen-nitrogen composition could explain that shape.

“As the outer layers of nitrogen ice evaporated, the shape of the body would have become progressively more flattened, just like a bar of soap does as the outer layers get rubbed off through use,” Alan Jackson, another study co-author, said in the release.

Some astronomers still think it was an alien ship

Unlike most space rocks, ‘Oumuamua seemed to be accelerating, rather than slowing down, in telescope observations.

That is in part why Loeb thinks ‘Oumuamua was an alien spacecraft. In a book he published in January, titled “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth,” Loeb describes ‘Oumuamua as a defunct piece of alien technology.

“The object has anomalies that merit some attention – things that do not line up in the ways we expected,” he told Insider in December. “Other people say, ‘Lets shove those anomalies under the rug of conservatism.’ I have a problem with that because when something doesn’t line up, you should say it.”

oumuamua interstellar comet asteroid object esa hubble nasa eso m kornmesser
An artist’s depiction of ‘Oumuamua.

Still, a 2019 study from an international group of astronomers analyzed all the ‘Oumuamua data available and concluded that Loeb’s theory was unlikely.

“We find no compelling evidence to favor an alien explanation for ‘Oumuamua,” the astronomers wrote.

Matthew Knight, a University of Maryland astronomer who co-wrote the study, put it this way: “This thing is weird and admittedly hard to explain, but that doesn’t exclude other natural phenomena that could explain it.”

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