This year’s Lyrid meteor shower will peak in the predawn hours of April 23. On average, the shower can produce up to 15 meteors per hour under ideal viewing conditions. The Lyrids occur every year in mid-April, when Earth crosses the trail of debris left by the Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. These bits of comet burn up when they hit Earth’s atmosphere and produce this shower of shooting stars. The shower gets its name from the constellation Lyra, the point in the sky where the meteors appear to originate. Unlike the Perseids or Geminids, the Lyrids are not known for bright fireballs. What makes them special is their unpredictability.
The first record of the Lyrid meteor shower dates back 2,700 years, making it one of the oldest in history. Researchers looking though old records have found descriptions of major Lyrid outbursts. For example, a notation made by the French bishop Gregory of Tours in April of 582 A.D. states, “At Soissons, we see the sky on fire.” There was also a Lyrid outburst visible over the United States in 1803. An article in the Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser describes the shower: “From one until three, those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets.” The last Lyrid outburst was in 1982, when 75 meteors per hour were recorded by observers in Florida.
The common theme here is that Lyrid outbursts are surprises. Unlike some other showers, meteor researchers aren’t able to predict Lyrid outbursts as well. That’s why it is important to make observations each year so that models of its activity can be improved.
How can you best observe the Lyrids? After 10:30 p.m. local time on the night of April 22, find a dark place away from city lights with open sky free of clouds and look straight up. It will take about 30 minutes for your eyes to get acclimated to the dark. Don’t look at your cell phone – the bright light from its screen will interrupt your night vision. You will begin to see Lyrids, and as the night progresses the meteors will appear more often, reaching 10 to 15 per hour in the pre-dawn hours of the 23rd. You can see Lyrids on the night before and after the peak, but the rates will be lower, maybe five per hour or so.
For more on meteors, visit the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.