The anticipated annual Lyrid meteor shower will begin on Sunday, sending fleeting bright streaks across the night sky. Though the spectacle will be visible from April 16 to April 25, the best time for viewing will be at the shower’s peak on April 22.
During the peak, viewers can expect to see about 18 meteors per hour. The Lyrids won’t number as many as the famed summer Perseids, but the shower is still notable—the Lyrids are one of just about ten meteor showers that yield more than ten meteors per hour at their height, Peter Vereš, a research scientist at the Minor Planet Center, a joint organization of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tells Smithsonian magazine.
As the shower approaches, here’s a guide to making the most of the radiant phenomenon.
What is the Lyrid meteor shower?
The Lyrids are one of the oldest recorded showers, known for their bright and fast meteors, or “shooting stars,” that race through the sky at about 29 miles per second. On occasion, an especially luminous meteor appears as a flash called a fireball, according to NASA.
Occurring every April, the Lyrid meteor shower is caused by tiny dust particles from space burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. As our planet moves through a trail of debris left behind by the comet Thatcher, the burning dust produces streaks of fiery light.
Though the Lyrids last for two weeks, anyone hoping to catch a glimpse this year should plan to be outside for the short peak, between April 21 and 23. “Outside of a maximum that lasts only a day or two, the number of Lyrids is very low,” says Vereš.
Still, he says, the Lyrids “can be surprising. Once in a few decades the Earth can cross a dense dust trail of the meteoroid stream and the activity could be significantly stronger.” In the past, some Lyrid viewers have spotted up to 100 meteors per hour.
How to watch the shower
The best way to view the Lyrids is to find a very dark location, preferably away from cities and areas with artificial light. In general, the light reflected by the moon could also interfere with the shower, making it difficult to spot the faint meteors. But this year, the peak will follow a new moon, so the mostly dark moon will disappear below the horizon soon after the sunset and not cause any disruption.
Viewing will be best from the Northern Hemisphere, and to get the ideal perspective, NASA recommends lying on your back with your feet facing east. The meteors will appear to come from a small area in the sky, known as the radiant. It’s located near the constellation Lyra, giving the shower its name.
However, it’s actually better to “not look toward the radiant itself but far from it, having it on the edge of the view angle,” Vereš says. Looking directly at the radiant will make the meteors seem shorter; scientists call this foreshortening.
It may take up to half an hour for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark—but the show should last until dawn.
Bring a blanket, warm clothes and some friends if you wish, so you can be prepared to observe the shower comfortably. Photographers might want a camera, but no binoculars will be necessary for this spectacle—the Lyrids can be seen with the naked eye.
A brief history of the Lyrids
The comet Thatcher, which left the trail of debris responsible for the Lyrids, makes an appearance in our solar system only rarely—it takes 415.5 years to complete its massive orbit around the sun. The last time Thatcher approached to pass around the sun was in 1861, and its next passage will not be until 2277, Vereš says.
The Lyrids have been observed for 2,700 years, with the first record of them dating to 687 B.C.E. in China. Similarly, in 1136 C.E., Korean astronomers noticed unusual activity of meteors, which modern scientists say were likely Lyrids. A report from Korea detailed the celestial show, describing how “many stars flew from the northeast,” according to Space.com’s Joe Rao.
In 1803, fire alarms went off in Richmond, Virginia, waking residents to the sight of blazing meteors. The event “alarmed many and astonished every person that beheld it. … Those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets,” a journalist noted at the time, per NASA.
To be able to keep seeing such breathtaking astronomical events in the future, Vereš says humans will need to mitigate the amount of light at night. “Artificial light pollution is becoming an issue not just for astronomers but also for the wildlife and for the biological cycles of humans,” he says. Dark sky initiatives and innovations such as streetlamps that shine down rather than up could increase visibility in the sky and reduce energy use.
With clear skies, other dazzling celestial events will captivate audiences in 2023. If you don’t have time to see the Lyrids—or are ready to plan your next night sky viewing opportunity—another upcoming meteor shower, the Eta Aquarids, has some overlap with the Lyrids, spanning from April 15 to May 27 and peaking in early May. These meteors come from Halley’s Comet and are characterized by their long, glowing trails.