Moon Comes in Near Alignment With Jupiter, Saturn and Mars This Week As Lyrid Meteor Shower Becomes Active

The moon will appear very close to the planet Mars on Thursday morning, with Jupiter and Saturn nearby, in a week that is providing skywatchers with plenty to enjoy.

In Thursday's predawn sky, the moon will pass 3.5 degrees below and to the left of the Red Planet, space.com reported. You can see this encounter low to the east-southeast horizon.

"Thursday morning, April 16, the waning crescent moon will appear below the planet Mars, with the planets Saturn and Jupiter to the right. The moon will be the last to rise in the east-southeast (at 3:42 a.m. ET for the Washington, D.C. area) and they should be visible until morning twilight begins (at 5:29 a.m. for the D.C. area,)" Gordon Johnston, Planetary Program Executive at NASA Headquarters, wrote for the NASA Science blog.

While the worlds appear close in the sky, they are, of course, actually very far apart. The moon, for example, will be around 243,000 miles from Earth, whereas Mars is about 125 million miles away.

Early on Tuesday morning, our natural satellite moved very close to Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. On Wednesday, at around 3:30 a.m., the moon passed around 3 degrees to the bottom left of the gas giant Saturn, space.com reported.

Thursday will also mark beginning of activity for the Lyrids—a medium strength meteor shower that will run until April 30, according to the American Meteor Society.

This meteor shower is expected to peak on the night of April 21-22, when the moon will be near its new phase, meaning it is almost invisible. This is good news for skywatchers as the lack of moonlight will provide perfect viewing conditions—weather permitting in your area.

Around 10 meteors—colloquially known as "shooting stars"—per hour may be visible around the peak, which itself only lasts for a few hours. However, good meteor rates can usually be seen on the nights both before and after the peak as well.

The Lyrids tends to produce bright meteors and even the occasional fireball. These are exceptionally bright shooting stars that can be seen over a very wide area, according to NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

Meteor showers are celestial events in which several shooting stars appear to originate from a single point in the sky—what astronomers call the radiant. These showers are the result of the Earth passing through cosmic debris left behind by comets, and in some rare cases, asteroids.

When this happens, pieces of cosmic debris enter the Earth's atmosphere at extremely high speeds and burn up, creating streaks of light in the sky.

In the case of the Lyrids, these bits of debris that burn up in the atmosphere—known as meteors—are thought to come from the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which last passed through the inner solar system in the year 1861.

The Lyrids are best seen from the northern hemisphere, between midnight and dawn. However, they can also be seen in the southern hemisphere, although fewer meteors will be visible.

half moon
The moon shows half of its face in the sky over the the Mojave Airport Civilian Test Center October 4, 2004 in Mojave, CA. HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images