Although the Lyrid meteor shower isn’t known for a high number of meteors, it is a favorite for stargazers because its meteors are fast and bright. What’s more, some of them even leave a glowing dust trail behind.
The Lyrid meteor shower can be seen in the night sky from April 15–29. Its peak, when you’ll see the most meteors, will be late Saturday, April 22, and early Sunday, April 23, according to NASA.
If the sky is clear and dark, you can expect to see 15–20 meteors every hour. They will be traveling at an amazing 29 miles per second.
Why We See Meteor Showers
Comets, which are roughly the “size of a small town,” can be thought of as giant snowballs made of frozen gasses with embedded rock and dust particles, NASA explains.
As a comet nears the Sun, it warms up and its ice begins to change from a solid to a gas. This produces what’s known as a “coma,” which is the fuzzy-shaped cloud surrounding the ball of ice. The coma can be thousands of miles in diameter.
Then, radiation pressure from the Sun — or solar wind — “blows” the expanding coma out to form the long tail that gives comets their distinctive shape.
As comets orbit the Sun, they leave a debris trail of rock and dust. As Earth passes through these debris trails each year on its own orbit of the Sun, the debris particles collide with Earth’s atmosphere. When this happens, the particles disintegrate, creating streaks across the sky.
The Annual Lyrid Meteor Shower
The Lyrid meteor shower occurs each year in April when Earth passes through the debris trail of a comet called C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which was discovered on April 5, 1861, by A. E. Thatcher. The comet takes 417 years to orbit the sun.
Here’s where the rest of the comet’s name comes from. Astronomers divide months in half — days 1 to 15 and days 16 to the month’s end — in what’s known as “half months” to name newly discovered solar system bodies such as comets and asteroids. These half-months are then labeled as the successive letters of the alphabet. Early January, for instance, is A, late January is B, and so on.
Since A. E. Thatcher discovered this comet, it is named after him. Also, the letter C indicates that it is a long-period comet and is not expected to return to the inner solar system in less than 200 years. The “1861” notes the year the comet was discovered. Finally, the letter G notes that the comet was discovered in the first half of April, while 1 explains it was the first comet discovered in that half-month period, NASA continues.
Interestingly, although the comet wasn’t discovered until 1861, NASA reports that the first recorded sighting of the Lyrid meteor shower was in 687 B.C., according to Chinese historical texts.
The Lyrid meteor shower gets its name from the constellation Lyra because that’s where the streaking meteors appear to originate.
How To Watch The Lyrid Meteor Shower
Since the Lyrid meteor shower lasts from April 15–29, you can look for meteors on any of those nights. The optimal time to watch the meteor shower will be during its peak in the late evening of Saturday, April 22, and early on Sunday, April 23.
You’ll start to see meteors around 10:30 p.m. on April 22 and the best viewing time will take place after midnight, according to The Planetary Society.
Watching a meteor shower is simple. All you need to do is go outside and lie down on your back or recline in a chair with your feet to the east. Then, just look up at the night sky. After about 30 minutes, your eyes will adjust to the darkness and you will begin to see the meteors.
If you really want to increase your chances of seeing the Lyrid meteor shower, you’ll want to be somewhere dark — away from city lights — so you can see the sky more clearly. You can use EarthSky’s dark skies map to find places in your area that are optimal for stargazing.
While you’re thinking of it, be sure to read all of our stargazing content, including: