April 17, 2013 at 1:13 PM ET
Like a spring flower, the annual Lyrid meteor shower is about to blossom in the night sky, and you've got several days to catch sight of the bloom as it grows.
"Meteor season is back!" photographer Jeff Berkes exulted in an email.
Although it's not the year's best shooting-star display, the Lyrids serve as a harbinger of spring and warmer days for skywatchers in the Northern Hemisphere. At its peak, on the night of April 21-22, the meteors should flash every three to six minutes or so. But that's the expected rate under ideal conditions: clear skies, far from city lights, with no sources of glare in the sky.
Unfortunately, there'll be one big source of glare this time around: the moon, which will be nearing its full phase on the best night. That would be an argument for getting out a couple of hours before dawn sometime in the days ahead, to catch the early meteors in darker skies. That's how Berkes captured his primo image of a meteor streak against the backdrop of the Milky Way.
"I had been traveling for days while sleeping out of my car as I continue my dark sky projects," the Pennsylvania-based photographer wrote. "I drove over 1,000 miles in three days, visited several states, and came home with over 3,000 pictures in addition to some time-lapse work. After spending two days in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I decided to move north to have a chance at viewing the northern lights Saturday night into Sunday morning. While I waited for the polar activity to pick up, I set up a couple of cameras up in different locations. I ended up capturing this meteor before I drove to a fourth location around 4 a.m. The best part is watching a meteor fall right through the middle of your frame. It was a beautiful way to end the trip, and a good sign that the Lyrids are coming!"
Like other meteor showers, the Lyrids are sparked by the cosmic debris left behind by a comet. In this case, the debris comes from Comet Thatcher, which comes around every 415 years. Every April, when our planet passes through the trail of bits left behind by the comet, some of those bits zoom through Earth's upper atmosphere and ionize the air. That's what creates the meteor streaks. The Lyrids are so named because the streaks appear to emanate from a point in the constellation Lyra.
Don't expect to see fireworks: "Rates this early in the activity curve would be low, less than one per hour no matter your location," Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society says on the MeteorObs mailing list. But if you're lucky, you could spot a fireball like the one that skywatcher Salvador Aguirre reported from Mexico. If you do get snapshots of meteors blooming, feel free to share it with us via our FirstPerson photo-upload page. We'll pass along more pictures as the Lyrids blossom.
More about meteors:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.