Come on Thursday morning (April 22), the first good meteor shower in almost four months peaks with an annual meteor shower, although the bright moon could be disruptive.
The shower of Lyrid is not a rich display, it certainly cannot be compared to the December Geminids or Perseids of August. An individual observer looking at the sky under a dark, clear sky can see 10 to 20 meteors per hour.
But many of these meteors tend to be brilliant and seem to move quite fast, sweeping through our atmosphere at an average speed of 48 kilometers per second. About a quarter of them leave the persistent trains. Within a day on both sides of the maximum, an observer can usually catch five to 10 lirides under good skies.
Related: How to see the best meteor showers in 2021
The Lyrids are actually the legacy of a long-deceased comet named Thatcher. This modestly bright comet was discovered in April 1861 by New York amateur astronomer AE Thatcher.
Lyrida’s orbit is very reminiscent of the orbit of comet Thatcher, which has an orbital period of about 415 years. Meteors are a cosmic drug; tiny bits thrown by this comet during previous visits to the sun. The Earth’s orbit almost coincides with the comet around April 22 each year. When we pass that part of our orbit, we crash through the dusty debris left behind by the comet.
We call these meteors “Lyrids” because their paths, if extended backwards, diverge from a place in the sky a little southwest of the brilliant bluish-white star Vega, in the constellation Lyra, the lyre.
Vega starts appearing only around 9pm local time, when it rises above the northeastern horizon. By 4 a.m., he had climbed to a point high in the sky, more than two-thirds of the way from the horizon to a point directly above his head.
We recommend that you lie down on a deck chair that offers a wide open view of the sky, and not risk a tense neck. Tie up until it’s as cold in April as it is on a winter night, but the nights in April can still be pretty chilly.
Some bad news, some good news
The bright rising moving moon, two days after the first quarter, will represent a significant handicap in watching Lirid this year. Located west (right) of the Lion’s Crescent, the moon will be in the sky most of the night during April 21 and 22, probably providing a view of all but the brightest lyrids.
However, here’s some good news: The moon will set around 4 a.m., just as Vega rises high in the sky. So, about half an hour, about 4:30 in the morning, the sky will be dark and you will be able to watch Lyride under the best possible conditions. Then the sky will start to glow as the sun rises just after 6am
Old, but (sometimes) good
Among all meteor showers, the Lyrids are the oldest documented, and the Chinese first recorded them in 687 BC, when “many stars flew from the northeast.” Other lirid showers have been reported, such as 15 BC (China) and 1136 (Korea).
In 1803, a fire alarm woke many Richmond residents in the state of Virginia from their beds to witness meteors that seemed to fall into the sky from every point.
In 1922, observers of the sky recorded an astonishing speed of Lyrida of 96 per hour, and in 1982, meteors surprised observers with a speed of as much as 80 per hour.
The conclusion is that, although the Lyrids are admittedly a weak representation, they also had a history of surprising onlookers, so it is always necessary to watch.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, Farmers’ Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.