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After-dark meteor showers in forecast

You may see a different kind of showers falling from the sky through Saturday. They’re bright – not wet.

It’s the annual Lyrid meteor shower, and prime viewing is projected to be in the early hours of both Wednesday and Thursday. Viewing may be helped this year by the presence of a waxing crescent moon: Such darker skies provide more contrast.

At peak, you might see 10 to 20 meteors, though the intensity of meteor showers is hard to predict. In 1982 the Lyrid shower at one point featured nearly 100 meteors per hour.

According to the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, southwest of Asheville in the Pisgah National Forest, near Rosman, the Lyrids may peak at 20 meteors per hour around 7 p.m. – during daylight; prime viewing is between midnight and dawn “from a clear, dark location with a good horizon.”

PARI’s advice: “Look to the northeast to find the meteors appearing to radiate out of the constellation of Lyra the harp. Binoculars or telescopes are not needed to observe meteors.”

Daniel Caton, a physics and astronomy professor and the director of observatories at Appalachian State University, said, “They are probably best seen Wednesday night although some could be seen late tonight as well since the meteor rate for them stays above 50 percent for 1.3 days.”

The best viewing, he said, is probably best after the moon sets, about midnight, high in the sky. Caton said, however, that “meteor showers can be geographically spotty– your (viewing) results may vary.”

Caton has described meteors as “natural fireworks... pebble-size rocks that enter Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of tens of miles per second and burn up due to frictional heating more than 50 miles above the ground.”

Because they are castoff pieces of comets, meteors appear in atmospheric “showers” when our planet passes through a comet’s tail; Earth’s gravity attracts comet’s discarded gasses and particles.

Comet C/1861 G1 produces the Lyrid meteors. The comet revolves around the sun every 415 years; every April, Earth passes through the comet’s tail.

Annual showers for the remainder of 2015 include the Aquarids (July), Perseids (August), Orionids (October), Leonids (November) and Geminids (December).

Those, according to Caton, are more exciting to view.

Of Lyrid showers, he said “the rate itself is rather low – 20 per hour maximum, seen by an observer staring at the zenith in a dark sky. That compares poorly to the bigger showers this year: Aquarids, 60; Persieds, 90; and Geminids, 120.”

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