Comet Neowise

Comet Neowise graced the skies over Teton Valley last July


Rain and snow are far from the only interesting things we see in Teton Valley skies. All kinds of atmospheric optics, from rainbows to crepuscular rays, often grace our skies, and once in a while, space weather turns our way and brings us aurora displays. But this week, what we have coming is something different from any of those.


The Lyrid meteor shower, peaking on the early morning of Earth Day, will be very different from the comet we saw for several nights last year, but comets and meteor showers are connected. This week’s meteor shower will happen when Earth passes through the debris left behind by a long-departed comet by the name of Comet 1861 G1 Thatcher, which was last seen in our skies back in 1861 (the year the Civil War started).  I was busy that night and missed it. Although that comet won’t be back until the year 2276 (our nation's quincentennial), this week, we will be traveling through debris left behind by its tail.


Any night this week, you might spot a meteor, but especially in that sweet dark time after moonset and before first light, the wee hours. The peak of the activity will be before dawn on Thursday the 22nd.  At the time of this writing, it looks like there will be around 10% cloud cover then, leaving plenty of clear sky for early risers to watch for shooting stars. Temperatures will likely be in the 20s F in Teton Valley at that time.


Unlike comets, meteor showers have no specific direction to look for them. They can zip silently through any part of the night sky at any time. No telescope or binoculars are necessary, only a comfortable place to lay back and look up. Tough job. If there is a bright Moon or city lights, don’t look in that direction. The meteor shower’s name often tells you the name of the constellation from which the streaks of light seem to emanate. The Lyrids will mostly seem to come from the constellation Lyra the harp if you can find that. It’s near a bright star named Vega, if that helps. But it isn’t important to look for the radiant point; the meteors will go out in all directions from there.


Good luck with your shooting star gazing, and always look up!