Meteor showers are the result of debris left over from a comet and during the course of every year there are many showers to see. As Earth passes through the debris, the tiny pieces burn up in our atmosphere and appear as “shooting stars” in the night sky.
In 2017 there will be nine major meteor showers, but not all of them will provide great viewing.
Weather and the moon are the two major things that hamper meteor showers. Another is an over estimation of the number of meteors per hour. These things are not precise – in some years a meteor shower may be predicted to be stunning, but disappoint, while in other years a meteor shower might over-perform.
Meteor showers aren’t like rain showers with a definitive beginning and ending. You can start to see the meteors before the official peak and they may linger a few days after, there just won’t be as many per hour.
This week, the Lyrid meteor shower peaks Friday. You can see it earlier and later than that provided the skies are clear. A day or maybe two on either side of peak it may still be worth looking up. The shower is predicted to peak in the dark before dawn Saturday morning.
Assuming you are in an area with clear skies, your next challenge is getting somewhere dark. Trying to watch a meteor shower in the middle of a city like Portland isn’t going to prove very fruitful. You still could see some of the brightest meteors, but many will be overshadowed by light pollution.
You don’t have to go very far to get into the dark. I watched Haley’s Comet from Cape Elizabeth in 1986 and got some great photos.
Meteors appear to radiate from a central point in the sky. Depending on the comet the radiating point is different. For the Lyrid, look northeast to find the radiant point. You don’t have to do this to see the meteors as they streak across the sky in all directions, but it’s cool to try to find the origin of them. There are some great apps on your smart phone to help you find the specific star closest to the point of origin for the meteors.
If you aren’t keen on awaking super early to see the meteors, or staying up very late, there are other sights in the night sky.
According to Sky and Telescope, Jupiter is visible in the evening sky this week.
Of course none of this matters if it’s cloudy. Clouds will move into the region on Thursday night with some rain showers Friday, but we might see a window of clearing just in time early Saturday if the storm keeps moving.
You can follow Dave Epstein on Twitter @growingwisdom.