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Look Up Tonight! The Lyrids Meteor Shower Is Set to Stun!

Look up tonight and you’ll see a waning crescent Moon, and, every few minutes, shooting stars falling from the sky. The Lyrids meteor shower peaks on April 21, and if light pollution is low in your area, you can expect to see around 10 meteors per hour—maybe more if you escape to the countryside.

WHAT IS GOING ON UP THERE?

The Lyrids—named for the constellation Lyra from which they seem to originate—are the happy result of the Earth slamming into the debris of the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher (named after its discoverer, not the former British prime minister). But don’t worry: Thatcher isn’t a danger! As it flies about its four-century-long orbit around the Sun, particles fall away. It’s perfectly normal shedding, resulting in an annual evening-time spectacular.

Thatcher is a long-period comet; such comets have orbits longer than 200 years. At aphelion—that is, its farthest point from the Sun—Thatcher is at a distance of 110 astronomical units (AU). To put this in perspective, the distance from the Sun to the Earth is 1 AU. The distance from the Sun to Pluto is about 40 AU. The very farthest-known natural, observable object in the solar system, V774104, is presently 103 AU. So Thatcher has put in a lot of work to make tonight's light show happen. I hope you appreciate it. This meteor shower is 415 years and 21,225,138,770 miles in the making. If that’s not good enough for you, nothing is.

HOW DO I SEE THE LYRIDS?

Sometimes, the Lyrids deliver a mind-blowing show. Its first reported occurrence was reportedly so bright and busy that it drowned out the stars. In 1982, it reached 90 meteors an hour. Ordinarily, however, the meteor shower produces five to 20 meteors every hour. Don’t miss this chance to see them, because when it comes to dust-sized cometary particles vaporizing in Earth’s atmosphere at 30,000 miles per hour, you just never know how good the show will be.

The best time to see the Lyrids will be after midnight until just before dawn. While you wait, check out Jupiter, bright and unblinking in the south. If you have a telescope handy, or even a reasonably powered set of binoculars, you’ll easily see four of its moons: Europa, Ganymede, Io, and Callisto. You can also see Saturn to the southeast (though this isn’t the best time for viewing it). As dawn approaches, look east and you’ll see Venus up there, as bright as ever. (It reaches greatest brilliancy on April 30.)

To enjoy the Lyrids meteor shower, you won’t need binoculars or a telescope or anything, really, but a blanket and patience. Since it’s a Friday night, bring a bottle of wine. You’re not going to live forever. Because the Moon will be but a sliver, it won’t wash out the sky with moonlight. So Thatcher and the Moon are doing the heavy lifting here. All you have to do is show up and wait.

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science
Geological Map Shows the Massive Reservoir Bubbling Beneath Old Faithful
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iStock

Yellowstone National Park is home to rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs, but Old Faithful is easily its most iconic landmark. Every 45 to 125 minutes, visitors gather around the geyser to watch it shoot streams of water reaching up to 100 feet in the air. The punctual show is one of nature’s greatest spectacles, but new research from scientists at the University of Utah suggests that what’s going on at the geyser’s surface is just the tip of the iceberg.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, features a map of the geological plumbing system beneath Old Faithful. Geologists have long known that the eruptions are caused by water heated by volcanic rocks beneath the ground reaching the boiling point and bubbling upwards through cracks in the earth. But the place where this water simmers between appearances has remained mysterious to scientists until now.

Using 133 seismometers scattered around Old Faithful and the surrounding area, the researchers were able to record the tiny tremors caused by pressure build-up in the hydrothermal reservoir. Two weeks of gathering data helped them determine just how large the well is. The team found that the web of cracks and fissures beneath Old Faithful is roughly 650 feet in diameter and capable of holding more than 79 million gallons of water. When the geyser erupts, it releases just 8000 gallons. You can get an idea of how the reservoir fits into the surrounding geology from the diagram below.

Geological map of geyser.
Sin-Mei Wu, University of Utah

After making the surprising discovery, the study authors plan to return to the area when park roads close for the winter to conduct further research. Next time, they hope to get even more detailed images of the volatile geology beneath this popular part of Yellowstone.

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Animals
Why Do Female Spotted Hyenas Give Birth Through Their Pseudo-Penises?
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At the zoo, you can sometimes tell the difference between male and female animals by noting their physical size, their behavior, and yes, their nether regions. Hyenas, however, flip the script: Not only are lady spotted hyenas bigger and meaner than their male counterparts, ruling the pack with an iron paw, they also sport what appear to be penises—shaft, scrotum, and all.

"Appear" is the key word here: These 7-inch-long phalluses don't produce sperm, so they're technically really long clitorises in disguise. But why do female hyenas have them? And do they actually have to (gulp) give birth through them? Wouldn't that hurt … a lot?

The short answers to these questions are, respectively, "We don't know," "Yes," and "OW." Longer answers can be found in this MinuteEarth video, which provides the full lowdown on hyena sex. Don't say we didn't warn you.

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