How to Watch the Oldest Known Meteor Shower Put On Its Annual Light Show


We haven’t experienced a major meteor shower since the Quadrantids ended in early January, but the annual meteor drought has officially ended with the Lyrids now in action. Here’s what you need to know about this yearly light show and how to watch it.

The Lyrids Meteor Shower, stemming from the debris of Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1), became active yesterday (April 15) and will remain so until April 29, reaching its climax on the nights of April 21 to 22 and 22 to 23. We’ve known about the Lyrids for at least 2,700 years, yet not much is known about its progenitor comet.

Described by the American Meteor Society as a “medium strength shower,” the Lyrids typically produce a decent number of meteors during their peak. They don’t often produce long streaks of light (i.e. trails of ionized gas), but they are known to produce the occasional fireball. The shower is best observed from the Northern Hemisphere, though some activity can still be seen in the Southern Hemisphere, albeit at a reduced rate.

How to watch the Lyrids

The Lyrids originate, or radiate, from the direction of Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. You can pinpoint this spot using either a skywatching app or by manually locating the star, but as NASA points out, it’s better to look away from the radiant.

“They will appear longer and more spectacular from this perspective,” according to the space agency. “If you do look directly at the radiant, you will find that the meteors will be short—this is an effect of perspective called foreshortening.”

Indeed, the meteors should be visible across much of the night sky, with optimal viewing conditions between midnight and dawn. Just before the Sun comes up, “Vega and the radiant point shine high overhead, and the meteors will be raining down from the top of the Northern Hemisphere sky,” according to EarthSky.

What to expect

This year’s viewing of the Lyrids faces a significant challenge due to the brightness of the waxing gibbous Moon, which will be 96% full at the peak of the shower. According to the AMS, intense moonlight is expected to greatly interfere with the visibility of the meteor shower.

The Lyrids, with meteors zooming across the sky at speeds reaching 29 miles per second (47 kilometers per second), are known to produce intense bursts of up to 100 meteors per hour, but that kind of output isn’t expected this year. The AMS predicts that, under ideal conditions, about 18 meteors per hour may be visible at the peak, though realistically, observers might see around 10 to 15 meteors per hour.

What to know about its parent comet

Meteor showers are typically produced by the debris from comets, as Earth passes through their dusty trails in space; the Lyrids are no exception. This debris enters our atmosphere and burns up, creating the vivid displays characteristic of meteor showers. The Lyrids occur each April and are the oldest recorded meteor shower, with observations dating back to 687 BCE by the Chinese.

The Lyrids’ parent object, Comet Thatcher, was discovered by astronomer A. E. Thatcher in 1861, and as a long-period comet, it takes somewhere between 416 and 422 years to complete a single orbit around the Sun (its exact orbital period is not known because only one passage of the comet has been observed to date). Its last closest approach to the sun occurred in the same year it was discovered, and it is expected to reach its next perihelion around the year 2283.

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