The Lyrids meteor shower are usually active between April 16 and April 25 every year. It tends to peak around April 22 or April 23.
Where is the radiant point for the Lyrid meteor shower? If you trace the paths of all the Lyrid meteors backward, they seem to radiate from the constellation Lyra the Harp, near the brilliant star Vega. However, this is only a chance alignment, for these meteors burn up in the atmosphere about 100 kilometers – or 60 miles – up. Vega lies trillions of times farther away at 25 light-years.
The star Vega resides quite far north of the celestial equator, so for that reason the Lyrid meteor shower favors the Northern Hemisphere. At mid-northern latitudes, Vega sits low over the northeastern horizon around 10 p.m. Afterwards, Vega soars upward during the nighttime hours and reaches its highest point in the sky around dawn.
As a general rule, the higher that Vega climbs into the sky, the more meteors that you’re likely to see. That’s why the greatest numbers of meteors generally fly in the dark hours before dawn.
The ancient Chinese are said to have observed the Lyrid meteors “falling like rain” in the year 687 BC.
That time period in ancient China, by the way, corresponds with what is called the Spring and Autumn Period (about 771 to 476 BC), which tradition associates with the Chinese teacher and philosopher Confucius, one of the first to espouse the principle: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” I wonder if he saw the meteors …
How to watch the Lyrid meteors. Fortunately, you don’t need any special equipment to watch a meteor shower. Just find a dark, open sky away from artificial lights. Lie down comfortably on a reclining lawn chair, and look upward.
Although the moonlight is likely to wash out some Lyrid meteors in 2014, a portion of these Lyrid meteors should be bright enough to overcome the moonlit glare.
Another beautiful feature of the Lyrids to watch for … about one quarter of these swift meteors exhibit persistent trains – that is, ionized gas trails that glow for a few seconds after the meteor has passed.
Comet Thatcher is the source of the Lyrid meteors. Every year, in the later part of April, our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1), of which there are no photographs due to its roughly a 415-year orbit around the sun. Comet Thatcher last visited the inner solar system in 1861, before the photographic process became widespread. This comet isn’t expected to return until the year 2276.
Bits and pieces shed by this comet litter its orbit and bombard the Earth’s upper atmosphere at 177,000 kilometers (110,000 miles) per hour. The vaporizing debris streaks the nighttime with medium-fast Lyrid meteors.
If Earth passes through an unusually thick clump of comet rubble, an elevated number of meteors could be in store.
What was that date again? So heads up in late April! The Lyrids will probably be best between midnight and dawn on April 22, 2014. The light of the last quarter moon will interfere, but if you’re out there with friends, a lawn chair to recline on, a sleeping bag to stay warm and thermos of something hot to drink … you’ll have fun.
Bottom line: Remember that the Lyrids aren’t the year’s best meteor shower. In the Northern Hemisphere, that distinction often goes to the Perseids in August or the Geminids in December. But the Lyrids do offer 10 to 20 meteors per hour at their peak on a moonless night; in 2014, the last quarter moon will likely temper the production before dawn on April 22. And remember that, like all meteor showers, the Lyrids aren’t altogether predictable. In rare instances, they can bombard the sky with up to nearly 100 meteors per hour.
Where to view
Observers in the Northern Hemisphere are best located to view the Lyrids.
While it is not necessary to look in a particular direction to enjoy a meteor shower – just lay down on the ground and look directly above and you are bound to see some meteors – astronomers suggest lying down on the ground looking towards the East and look at the sky above you to view the Lyrids.
When to view
The best time to view the Lyrids is after nightfall and before dawn.
How to view
There isn’t a lot of skill involved in watching a meteor shower. Here are some tips on how to maximize your time looking for the Lyrids:
- Get out of the city to a place where city and artificial lights do not impede your viewing
- If you are out viewing the shower during its peak, you will not need any special equipment. You should be able to see the shower with your naked eyes.
- Carry a blanket or a comfortable chair with you – viewing meteors, just like any other kind of star gazing is a waiting game, and you need to be comfortable. Plus, you may not want to leave until you can’t see the majestic celestial fireworks anymore.
- Check the weather and moonrise and moonset timings for your location before you leave, and plan your viewing around it.