What to See in the Skies: The Spring Equinox

Not too long ago, there was a trending phenomenon across all social media platforms — standing an egg and a broom straight up and having it balance on its own. It was September 22, 2016 when I opened Twitter, and to my surprise I saw several brooms standing upright without any assistance. Must have been another photo-shopped photograph, I thought to myself. I noticed that the Twitter profile picture was a picture of the moon. I also knew there was an Autumnal Equinox, so I went on the web to investigate further.

An Equinox is when there is equal daytime and nighttime across all of earth. This year’s Spring Equinox occurred on Monday, March 20, 2017. In addition to being the first Equinox of 2017, it marked the first day of Spring. When this happens, the Earth’s axis is perpendicular to the sun’s rays, leading many to believe it generates a special balance.

As we move into spring, the Lyrid Meteor Shower is calculated to be illuminating the night sky in between midnight and dusk, with a peak of meteors having just occurred on April 22-23. Although the peak is on these dates, it is still possible to observe showers days before and after this period. The meteor shower is named after the constellation Lyra. Meteor showers are created when comet debris enters earth’s atmosphere at a high speed. Friction causes the debris to heat up which we see as light streaks across the sky as they burn up in the atmosphere.

Although the Northern Hemisphere has the best location to view the Lyrids, the population in the mid-Southern Hemisphere are also able to see the showers between midnight and sunrise. Scientists recommend looking East into the sky to spot the shooting stars cast by the Lyrids. Orbiting around the Sun at intervals of 415 years, comet Thatcher produces debris which yields Lyrids. This is a rarity because comet Thatcher last visited our solar system in 1861, prior to the booming field of astronomical photography. This will not occur again in the inner solar system until the year 2276.

With the star Vega being the peak of the Lyrids, in the Northeast between 9 and 10pm EST, the star climbs high enough to a point where meteor showers from the Lyrids are visible. By dawn, Vega climbs to an even higher point, creating numerous visible meteors across the sky. Although during this year’s Lyrid showers there will be a waning crescent moon, astronomers are assuring viewers that the light from the moon will not interfere greatly.

The history of the Lyrid meteor shower dates back all the way to the ancient Chinese observations in 687 BC. According to Bruce McClure on EarthSky.org, the Chinese observed the Lyrids “falling like rain.” Traveling at 110,000 miles per hour, the debris streaks across the night sky, the Lyrid meteors illuminate the night sky, explaining this illusion.

On a moonless night, the meteor shower can contain up to 20 meteors per hour at its peak. In extremely rare cases, the shower can bombard the night sky with close to 100 meteors per hour. According to astronomers, no storms, containing more than 20 meteors per hour this year are expected. On the other hand, scientists say to keep an eye out as you never know for certain what the Lyrid meteor shower will bring.

Having seen all the pictures of the equinox on Twitter that day, I quickly ran into the garage and grabbed the broom– I had to debunk the broom-myth.  And as I thought it would, the broom fell right back down to the ground. I tried it a couple more times; I even gave the egg-myth a try, eventually debunking both myths as another example of altered images on the web. And as appealing as it may seem, no matter what the day, equinox or not, it is not any easier to stand a broom or an egg straight up on its top.  But on the other hand, watching the stars is very easy to do, and at this time of the year, you might see something amazing.

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