The annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks this year on the morning of Saturday, April 22nd, as Earth passes through a stream of dusty debris trailing Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1). Comet Thatcher last visited the inner solar system in 1861, and isn’t expected to return until the year 2276. The “inner solar system” is the region between the Sun and Mars.
The Lyrids are not an intense shower. Nevertheless, if you wake up a couple of hours or so before dawn on the 22nd and watch the sky you might see a sprinkling of meteors emerge from the vicinity of the bright star Vega. The radiant point will be in the northeast before sunrise. Remember though, you do not need to be looking at the radiant point to see meteors, and usually will see more if you focus on a dark area of the sky about 30° away from the radiant point. The radiant point is simply where, if you traced the meteors backward along their path, they would appear to come from in the sky. You can see the meteors themselves anywhere in the sky you look. I like to sit back and try to not focus on any one point. Let your peripheral vision dominate and you will increase the effective area you are viewing.
The Lyrid meteor shower has the distinction of being among the oldest of known meteor showers. Records of this shower go back for some 2,700 years. The ancient Chinese are said to have observed the Lyrid meteors “falling like rain” in the year 687 BC. According to space.com, “In 1803, residents of Richmond, Virginia, went outside late at night after a fire alarm. A report from that time noted that the meteors resembled rockets in the sky. 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, wrote a journalist at the time.”
The Lyrid meteors hit the earth’s atmosphere at about 177,000 kilometers (110,000 miles) per hour and tend to be bright and often leave trails a couple of seconds long. About 10-20 meteors per hour at peak can be expected. Plus, the Lyrids are known for uncommon surges that can sometimes bring the rate up to 100 per hour. Those rare outbursts are not easy to predict, but they’re one of the reasons the tantalizing Lyrids are worth checking out. As a general rule, the greatest number of Lyrid meteors will be observed in the dark hours before dawn. With a waning crescent moon, we should have nice, dark skies for the shower (weather permitting)!
Article by: W. Jerrold Samford, Environmental Compliance Specialist, Troutman Sanders
Cresent Moon Image: Credit & Copyright: Luis Argerich, Agustin Llorens, Guido Medici, Gabriel Remotti