Skywatchers are in for a treat in late April: An annual meteor shower will peak when the moon's absence leaves the night sky dark and great for viewing.
The Lyrid meteor shower peaks overnight from April 21 to April 22, with the best observing coming between midnight and dawn on the 22nd local time, experts say. The moon will be new at this time, so the Lyrids' bright flashes won't be drowned out by the glare of Earth's nearest neighbor.
The Lyrids will be visible all over the world. NASA officials estimate a maximum meteor rate of about 15 per hour, but the number could be higher or lower than this. The Lyrids are quite unpredictable, with maximum rates ranging from 10 to 100 meteors per hour over the years.
Meteor showers are generated when Earth plows through streams of debris shed by periodic comets on their path around the sun. The chunks of debris die a fiery death in our planet's atmosphere, leaving bright streaks in the sky to commemorate their passing.
The debris trails that spawn the Lyrids were sloughed by a comet known as C/1861 G1 Thatcher. The Lyrids, so named because they appear to originate from the constellation Lyra (The Lyre), have been observed in the night sky during mid-April for at least 2,500 years, NASA scientists say.
In case cloudy skies hinder your viewing opportunities on the night of April 21 — or if you just want to augment your skywatching experience — NASA will host a live chat with meteor experts from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. EDT (0400 to 0900 GMT).
Meteor experts Bill Cooke, Danielle Moser and Rhiannon Blaauw, all of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will stay up late to answer your questions, and a live feed from NASA meteor cameras will show the Lyrid shower as it happens. To participate in the chat and watch the streaming video, go to this site at the appropriate time: http://www.nasa.gov/connect/chat/lyrids2012_chat.html
If you snap an amazing photo of the Lyrid meteor shower or any other skywatching target, and would like to share it for a possible story or image gallery, please contact SPACE.com managing editor Tariq Malik at firstname.lastname@example.org.