If you're a meteor maven or stargazer, this is the weekend for one of the year's best meteor showers, the Lyrids. The Lyrids come to maximum strength April 21-22, which for those of us in North America means late Sunday night and early Monday morning. The shower is caused by the Earth passing through the orbit of space debris left by a comet, and usually dazzles viewers with 10-20 meteors per hour from a point in the sky close to the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra.
How can iOS help? Well, there are a lot of astronomy apps that will point you in the right direction using the compass and elevation sensors, and give you some background on meteors and their origins. Here are some of my personal favorites that should come in handy this weekend:
Star Walk (US$2.99) has some info on the Lyrids shower, and best of all it will show you where to look in the early morning sky. You don't have to know a thing about astronomy; Star Walk uses the iPhone sensors to point you in the right direction.
Distant Suns ($9.99 for the most advanced version) is another favorite. It doesn't list the meteor shower on its event notifications, but you can easily select the constellation Lyra in the app and the app directs you on where to look for the shower. Like Star Walk, Distant Suns provides a striking display of the night sky. There is a free, lite version available for download as well.
Pocket Universe ($1.99) also has a beautiful display, and while the app mentions the Lyrid shower, it doesn't provide any details. You can use the program to orient you towards Lyra.
Sky Safari ($2.99) is an excellent astronomy app and star chart, but it's completely silent about the meteor shower. Like the other apps, since you know that the shower is in the constellation of Lyra, it will point you to the proper area of the sky for possible viewing.
If you are just getting started in amateur astronomy, Star Walk is your best bet. It seems the most friendly app for events like this meteor shower, and the Lyrids shower is on the events list in that app along with additional information. You're just a tap away from finding that point in the sky where the most meteors appear to be coming from.
The moon is always the enemy of those looking for faint objects in the sky. For this year's Lyrid shower, the moon doesn't set until about 4 AM Monday morning, making this a less than perfect event. You should be able to see meteors beginning at about midnight Sunday, with western North America being the best location for viewing. The meteors you see flash through the sky are actually very small pieces of rock igniting when they hit the Earth's atmosphere about 60 to 70 miles up. These rocks are seldom are large enough to make it all the way down to the Earth's surface, but sometimes they do, as evidenced by the large meteorite that hit Russia on February 15.
The meteor image on this page is from Wikimedia Commons.