The Lyrid meteor shower is due for its annual appearance, and is expected to peak late Sunday night, April 21, and early Monday morning, April 22, over North America. Even though the near-full moon may render much of the annual show invisible to us, Space.com tells us that away from city lights, 20 meteors per hour could be visible.
The Lyrids (pronounced Lie-rids) have been observed for more than 2,500 years — during 687 B.C., Chinese records noted that “stars fell like rain”. Aside from some similar key years, notably last year, when my family scanned the skies and then joined many other enthusiasts for NASA’s Up All Night NASA Chat, and 1982, when 90 and more shooting stars were seen for a period of hours, the Lyrids have been a minor meteor shower.
Can’t watch it at the exact time? Don’t worry — astronomers tell us that meteor showers can last for hours before and after the peak time.
What is a meteor shower?
Meteors occur when the Earth passes through streams of dust and debris from ancient comets which have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. (When the comet has flown close to the sun, its dirty ice evaporated and that, in turn, caused the comet dust to spew into space.) The Lyrid meteor shower hails from the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which orbits the Sun only once every 415 years, even though we see the Lyrids that result from it annually. The orbit of this comet appears to lie in the constellation Lyra, the source of the name Lyrids.
How to watch the Lyrid Meteor Shower
Meteors are best viewed with the naked eye. Sky watchers should grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), and a blanket if it’s cold, and head outside where you can see the largest patch of night sky possible (with as little city light as possible), and look up.
Because meteor showers last for days before and after the projected peak, try to scan the skies during the surrounding days, if you can.
This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about the Lyrids and where and when to see them in your local night sky. Their Meteor Shower Caldendar lets you get ready for future meteor shows, like the popular Perseids, which will hit this year on August 11-12.
Photo: Composite of 2009 Lyrids over Huntsville, Ala. (NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser)