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Earth Day Lyrid meteor shower is already underway

One of the oldest skywatching traditions on Earth is underway and set to peak this weekend. So lay back, relax and look up at the sky.

The best chance to see "shooting stars" in months comes this Earth Day, but the annual Lyrid meteor shower is already underway right now.

The Lyrids run from April 14-30 with a peak in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 22 that will reward those willing to head outside before dawn (or stay up all night long).

Across much of Europe, North America and other mid-northern latitudes, the moon will set around roughly 2 a.m. local time so the sky will be darkest and best for viewing the show between moonset and sunrise. 

(You can check here to find out when moonset happens at the major city nearest you.)

The 2012 Lyrid meteor shower as captured by astronaut Don Pettit aboard the International Space Station. 

NASA

If skies are clear where you are, head outside away from artificial light sources and allow your eyes to adjust for about 20 minutes. Then, lie back, relax and look up at the sky. You should be able to see as many as 20 meteors per hour in the early morning hours of April 22.

You might hear that different meteor showers emanate from different sections of the sky. While this is technically true, by the time those little bits of space dust and rock end up burning up in our atmosphere, they could be streaking across just about any part of the night sky. So it's better just to try and get as wide a view of the sky as possible.

If there is an outburst of the Lyrids, we could see as many as 100 meteors in an hour. This happens about every 60 years with the Lyrids, and the next outburst isn't forecast until around 2042, according to the International Meteor Organization. But there is a certain level of unpredictability with these things, and we could get lucky. 

Lyrid meteors tend to be bright and fast like the Perseids of August, according to NASA, although not quite as fast or plentiful as that famous shower. Look for glowing dust trains that can last for several seconds trailing the burning space rocks. 

The Lyrids are one of the oldest cosmic viewing traditions around, having been observed since at least 687 B.C. They are caused by the Earth's annual trip through a cloud of dust and debris left behind by the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which passes by the sun every 415 years. The comet last passed by our corner of the solar system in 1861 and won't be back for a few centuries. 

Fortunately it left behind plenty of little gifts that our planet will ignite and turn into fireworks to celebrate itself this Earth Day weekend. Enjoy!

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