A waning crescent moon won’t rain on this week’s meteor parade. The Lyrid meteor shower won’t impress you with the number of meteors per hour, but it only takes one fireball to have you saying ‘woah.’
This year’s second meteor shower officially kicked off on Sunday (April 16), but the peak isn’t until the pre-dawn hours on April 22. You know the drill. Get as far away from city lights as you can. The more light pollution around you, the fewer meteors you will see. A dark field will work. A National Park would be even better.
And don’t sweat the peak date of April 22. According to the American Meteor Society, the night before and after should also produce a solid amount of meteors per hour. If you’re looking for the best chance to see meteors, head outside several hours before dawn on April 22. You should see about 15 to 20 Lyrids per hour.
A Lyrid meteor outburst isn’t expected
Outbursts can produce hundreds of meteors per hour, but astronomers don’t expect that to happen this year. In 1982, 90 Lyrids were seen per hour during the peak. That rivals the best meteor showers of the year but pales in comparison to accounts from the Lyrids in 1803.
A journalist in Richmond, Virginia documented the impressive display.
“Shooting stars. This electrical [sic] phenomenon was observed on Wednesday morning last at Richmond and its vicinity, in a manner that alarmed many, and astonished every person that beheld it. From one until three in the morning, those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets…”
Observations of the Lyrids go back much further. One recorded outburst in ancient China described the meteors as “falling like rain.”
Fireballs are possible
You’ll know it when you see one. These meteors light up the sky as a bigger than usual chunk of rock/ice slams into Earth’s atmosphere at speeds approaching 108,000 miles per hour. You should see an ionized gas trail accompany a fireball. It will give off a glow for a couple of seconds after the meteor burns up.
The dusty leftovers of Comet Thatcher
Every April, Earth passes through a dense cloud of debris left from Comet Thatcher’s 415-year orbit around the sun. Don’t expect to catch a glimpse of the comet anytime soon, though. The last time Comet Thatcher was at perihelion (closest point to the sun) was in 1861.
EarthSky points out we don’t even have a picture of the comet yet. And we won’t get one until the comet makes its way back to the inner solar system around the year 2276.
Don’t worry about the radiant point
The radiant point isn’t all that important. As long as you are outside when the radiant point is above the horizon, you are good to go. Lyrids will appear to originate from around the bright star Vega. The higher the star is in the sky, the better chances you have of seeing meteors.
Just head outside around midnight local time, and you’ll be good to go. Lie back, soak in as much of the sky as possible and cross your fingers for a couple of fireballs.
Will mother nature cooperate?
The moon won’t be an issue, but clouds will be for many. Accuweather posted a visibility map for the U.S. Let’s take a look.
The good news with Lyrids is the peak time is a little looser than other meteor showers. Try heading outside around midnight the night before and after peak to catch a few meteors.
Perseids in August
The next chance for most of us to see a meteor shower after the Lyrids won’t be until July/August. That’s when the Perseids kick off. This one is one of the best. Partly because of the warm summer nights. But also because it can produce hourly rates at the peak of nearly 100 meteors per hour. Rural locations can easily see 50-75 per hour.
It’ll be a nice primer to the total solar eclipse coming to the U.S. on August 21.