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Use Big Dipper to find Polaris and Little Dipper

Use Big Dipper to find Polaris and Little Dipper

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TONIGHT FORAPRIL 19, 2014

Moon PhaseCourtesy U.S. Naval Observatory

You might see some meteors this weekend! Lyrid shower now rising to a peak.

So you say you can find the Big Dipper, but not the Little Dipper? This post is for you. Here’s the view northward on April evenings. At present the Big Dipper is high in the north during the evening hours. Notice the two outer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper. These two stars – called Duhbe and Merak – always point to Polaris, the North Star. Find Polaris, and you can find the Little Dipper.

Polaris is special because it always stays in the same spot in the northern sky. It’s the star around which the entire northern sky appears to turn. That’s because Polaris is located more or less above the northern axis of the Earth, and the wheeling of the stars across the dome of night is really due to Earth’s turning, after all.

Polaris is also fun to locate for another reason. It’s part of a famous – though elusive – star pattern, known as the Little Dipper.

So here it is! The Little Dipper! The North Star, Polaris, marks the end of its handle.

A planisphere is virtually indispensable for beginning stargazers. Order your EarthSky planisphere today.

View larger. | You can use the Big Dipper to identify lots of other sky favorites, too.  In this shot, taken around 3:30 a.m. in July 2013, Tom Wildoner shows how you can use the two outer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper to find the North Star, Polaris.  Thanks, Tom!

View larger. | No matter where you see the Big Dipper, the two outer stars in its bowl point to Polaris. In this shot, Tom Wildoner caught the Big Dipper and Polaris at around 3:30 a.m. in July 2013. Thanks, Tom!

Bottom line: If you’ve ever looked for the Dippers, you know that the Big Dipper is usually pretty easy to find. But the Little Dipper is much tougher, partly because it’s fainter, and partly because its shape is not nearly as dipper-like as its larger counterpart. This post tells you how to use the Big Dipper to find the Little Dipper.

Thuban: Past North Star

Star Errai: Future North Star

Get your kids interested in astronomy and the sky! Use EarthSky’s lunar calendar as a fun way to enjoy the moon phases throughout the year.

Everything you need to know: Lyrid meteor shower

Everything you need to know: Lyrid meteor shower

 

In 2014, Lyrid meteor shower peaks on Earth Day morning, April 22. Bright moon interferes, but the Lyrids are bright, too, and can withstand some moonlight.

 

The annual Lyrid meteor shower is active each year from about April 16 to 25, and so you might see some Lyrid meteors beginning this weekend. The peak of this shower – which tends to come in a burst and usually lasts for less than a day – will fall on Earth Day, April 22, 2014. The greatest number of meteors will fall during the few hours before dawn. A last quarter moon, rising in the middle of the night, intrudes on the Lyrid shower in 2014, but these meteors tend to be bright. Some may overcome the moonlight. Follow the links below to learn more about the Lyrid meteor shower: April’s shooting stars!

How many Lyrids meteors can I expect to see?

Where is the radiant point for the Lyrid meteor shower?

Lyrid meteors in history.

How to watch the Lyrid meteors.

Comet Thatcher is the source of the Lyrid meteors.

What was that date again?

A fireball meteor falling earthward, courtesy ofNASA/George Varros

How many Lyrids meteors can I expect to see? On a moonless night, you can often see up 10 to 20 meteors an hour at the shower’s peak. Due to the phase of the moon, meteor counts could be down in 2014.

On the other hand, meteor showers are notorious for defying the most careful predictions. The Lyrids stand as no exception. An outburst of Lyrid meteors is always a possibility (though no Lyrid outburst is predicted for 2014).

For instance, American observers saw an outburst of nearly 100 Lyrid meteors per hour in 1982. Around 100 meteors per hour were seen in Greece in 1922 and from Japan in 1945.

Meteor-watchers are risk-takers, as a group. They’re always hoping for that fabulous display. So you can bet that some aficionados will be out there on April 22, set up to watch the 2014 Lyrids, despite the moon.

The radiant point of the Lyrid meteor shower is near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp.

The radiant point of the Lyrid meteor shower is near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp.

Another view of the brilliant star Vega, which nearly coincides with the radiant point of April’s Lyrid meteor shower. Image viaAlltheSky

Where is the radiant point for the Lyrid meteor shower? If you trace the paths of all the Lyrid meteors backward, they seem to radiate from the constellation Lyra the Harp, near the brilliant star Vega. However, this is only a chance alignment, for these meteors burn up in the atmosphere about 100 kilometers – or 60 miles – up. Vega lies trillions of times farther away at 25 light-years.

The star Vega resides quite far north of the celestial equator, so for that reason the Lyrid meteor shower favors the Northern Hemisphere. At mid-northern latitudes, Vega sits low over the northeastern horizon around 10 p.m. Afterwards, Vega soars upward during the nighttime hours and reaches its highest point in the sky around dawn.

As a general rule, the higher that Vega climbs into the sky, the more meteors that you’re likely to see. That’s why the greatest numbers of meteors generally fly in the dark hours before dawn.

More about radiant point of April’s Lyrid meteor shower

Portrait of Confucius.

Portrait of Confucius.

Lyrid meteors in history. The Lyrid meteor shower has the distinction of being among the oldest of known meteor showers. Records of this shower go back for some 2,700 years.

The ancient Chinese are said to have observed the Lyrid meteors “falling like rain” in the year 687 BC.

That time period in ancient China, by the way, corresponds with what is called the Spring and Autumn Period (about 771 to 476 BC), which tradition associates with the Chinese teacher and philosopher Confucius, one of the first to espouse the principle: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” I wonder if he saw the meteors …

How to watch the Lyrid meteors. Fortunately, you don’t need any special equipment to watch a meteor shower. Just find a dark, open sky away from artificial lights. Lie down comfortably on a reclining lawn chair, and look upward.

Although the moonlight is likely to wash out some Lyrid meteors in 2014, a portion of these Lyrid meteors should be bright enough to overcome the moonlit glare.

Another beautiful feature of the Lyrids to watch for … about one quarter of these swift meteors exhibit persistent trains – that is, ionized gas trails that glow for a few seconds after the meteor has passed.

Lyrids and others via NASA/MSFC/D. Moser

Lyrids and others via NASA/MSFC/D. Moser

Comet Thatcher is the source of the Lyrid meteors. Every year, in the later part of April, our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1), of which there are no photographs due to its roughly a 415-year orbit around the sun. Comet Thatcher last visited the inner solar system in 1861, before the photographic process became widespread. This comet isn’t expected to return until the year 2276.

Bits and pieces shed by this comet litter its orbit and bombard the Earth’s upper atmosphere at 177,000 kilometers (110,000 miles) per hour. The vaporizing debris streaks the nighttime with medium-fast Lyrid meteors.

If Earth passes through an unusually thick clump of comet rubble, an elevated number of meteors could be in store.

What was that date again? So heads up in late April! The Lyrids will probably be best between midnight and dawn on April 22, 2014. The light of the last quarter moon will interfere, but if you’re out there with friends, a lawn chair to recline on, a sleeping bag to stay warm and thermos of something hot to drink … you’ll have fun.

Bottom line: Remember that the Lyrids aren’t the year’s best meteor shower. In the Northern Hemisphere, that distinction often goes to the Perseids in August or the Geminids in December. But the Lyrids do offer 10 to 20 meteors per hour at their peak on a moonless night; in 2014, the last quarter moon will likely temper the production before dawn on April 22. And remember that, like all meteor showers, the Lyrids aren’t altogether predictable. In rare instances, they can bombard the sky with up to nearly 100 meteors per hour.

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