If cloudy skies blocked your view of this past Tuesday's lunar eclipse, the next few evenings may offer a runner's up prize: the chance to catch the first meteor shower of the season. The Lyrids aren't the year's biggest celestial show, but they offer some lovely surprises.
Although meteor showers are the debris shed by passing comets, they derive their names from the constellation where they appear to originate. The constellation Lyra is always visible in the Northern Hemisphere, but, due to its tiny size, it's largely recognizable by its alpha star Vega, one of the brightest stars in the night sky. Early Greek star-gazers named this stellar pattern Lyra to honor the musician Orpheus whose music appeased even the fearful Hades, god of the underworld. After hearing Orpheus play, Hades agreed to allow Eurydice, Orpheus's recently deceased bride, to follow Orpheus from the underworld under the condition that he not look back until they had reached the surface. Unable to resist the temptation, Orpheus loses his wife a second time and becomes crazed with grief. Frustrated by Orpheus's unwillingness to play, devotees of the god of wine, Dionysis, dismember him (ouch!), and his lyre is placed among the stars.
Vega rises between 9 and 10 pm and stands high overhead by dawn. Since the light of the waning gibbous moon will diminish the view, the best time to catch a meteor may be between late evening and 1:30 am on Sunday or Monday mornings. You could catch a glimpse of a streaking meteor anytime, of course, in any area of the sky, but if you begin by spotting Vega and keep scanning the eastern section of the sky, you'll increase your chances of catching one of the more delightful sights offered by the heavens.
The last quarter moon occurs Tuesday with Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning of next week offering a beautiful pairing of the waning crescent moon and 'Morning Star' Venus before dawn. But what better way to celebrate Spring than to rise with the birdsong and greet the rising sun? Happy viewing!