This weekend, in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Lyrid meteor shower will soar across darkened skies. As Jesse Emspak reports for Space.com, viewing conditions are expected to be very favorable, giving astronomy enthusiasts a good chance of spotting the Lyrids in all their fiery glory.
The Lyrid meteor shower occurs each year in late April, and is best observed in the Northern Hemisphere when the skies are dark—after moonset and before sunrise. This year, peak viewing time is before dawn on April 22. The waning crescent moon will have set by then, so it won’t obscure the meteor shower with its own light. For similar reasons, Richard Talcott notes in Astronomy, it’s best to watch the shower away from the bright lights of a city.
Forecasts are predicting clear night skies for most of the western United States and the immediate Eastern seaboard this weekend, which also bodes well for viewing opportunities, according Doyle Rice of USA Today.
“Find an area well away from city or street lights,” NASA recommends. “Come prepared with a sleeping bag, blanket or lawn chair. Lie flat on your back with your feet facing east and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. After about 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt and you will begin to see meteors.”
The Lyrids are so-called because they appear to burst forth from Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. But the Lyrids are actually tiny particles and debris that trail behind comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. When Earth crosses the comet’s orbital path each year in April, the debris collides with our planet’s atmosphere at a speed of 109,600 mph. Friction causes the bits of debris to vaporize, which creates spectacular streaks of color in the sky.
Most Lyrid showers will produce 15 to 20 meteors every hour. NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke tells Emspak of Space.com that this year’s event may see as many as 18 meteors per hour. On rare occasions, the Lyrids will intensify and erupt into “outbursts” of up to a 100 meteors per hour. The last Lyrids outburst reported in the U.S. was in 1982, and the one before that was seen in Japan in 1945. The Lyrids are one of the oldest known meteor showers, with records from 687 B.C.E. in China describing the meteors as "falling like rain,” according to Rice of USA Today.
Modern-day experts say that if you’re hoping to view the Lyrids, you should not look directly at Vega, which is known as the “radiant” because it appears to be the point where the shower originates. Staying fixated on that point will make the meteors appear short—“an effect of perspective called foreshortening,” NASA explains. If you train your eyes away from Vega, the meteors will look longer and more impressive.
“Be patient,” NASA suggests. “[T]he show will last until dawn, so you have plenty of time to catch a glimpse.”