It’s time for the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower! The annual Lyrid meteor shower is active each year from about April 16 to 25. The peak of this shower – which tends to come in a burst and usually lasts for less than a day – will fall on the morning of Earth Day, April 22, 2014. The greatest number of meteors should fall during the few hours before dawn that day. But you might want to watch in late evening, too, on both April 21 and 22. That’s because a last quarter moon, rising in the middle of the night, intrudes on the Lyrid shower on the morning of April 22. These meteors tend to be bright. Some may overcome the moonlight. Follow the links below to learn more about the Lyrid meteor shower: April’s shooting stars!
How many Lyrids meteors can I expect to see? Meteor-watchers are risk-takers, as a group. They’re always hoping for that fabulous display. So you can bet that some aficionados will be out there on the morning of April 22, set up to watch the 2014 Lyrids, despite the moon.
And don’t forget … watch in late evening on April 21, too.
Clouded out both times? Try watching in late evening on April 22, or before dawn April 23. It’ll be after the peak, but the moon, which is now waning, will appear smaller in the sky, and that fact might increase the number of meteors you see.
On a moonless night, you can often see from about 10 to 20 meteors an hour at the shower’s peak. Due to the phase of the moon, meteor counts are likely to be down in 2014.
On the other hand, meteor showers are notorious for defying the most careful predictions. The Lyrids stand as no exception. An outburst of Lyrid meteors is always a possibility (though no Lyrid outburst is predicted for 2014).
For instance, American observers saw an outburst of nearly 100 Lyrid meteors per hour in 1982. Around 100 meteors per hour were seen in Greece in 1922 and from Japan in 1945.
Where is the radiant point for the Lyrid meteor shower? If you trace the paths of all the Lyrid meteors backward, they seem to radiate from the constellation Lyra the Harp, near the brilliant star Vega. However, this is only a chance alignment, for these meteors burn up in the atmosphere about 100 kilometers – or 60 miles – up. Vega lies trillions of times farther away at 25 light-years.
The star Vega resides quite far north of the celestial equator, so for that reason the Lyrid meteor shower favors the Northern Hemisphere. At mid-northern latitudes, Vega sits low over the northeastern horizon around 10 p.m. Afterwards, Vega soars upward during the nighttime hours and reaches its highest point in the sky around dawn.
As a general rule, the higher that Vega climbs into the sky, the more meteors that you’re likely to see. That’s why the greatest numbers of meteors generally fly in the dark hours before dawn.
The ancient Chinese are said to have observed the Lyrid meteors “falling like rain” in the year 687 BC.
That time period in ancient China, by the way, corresponds with what is called the Spring and Autumn Period (about 771 to 476 BC), which tradition associates with the Chinese teacher and philosopher Confucius, one of the first to espouse the principle: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” I wonder if he saw the meteors …
How to watch the Lyrid meteors. Fortunately, you don’t need any special equipment to watch a meteor shower. Just find a dark, open sky away from artificial lights. Lie down comfortably on a reclining lawn chair, and look upward.
Although the moonlight is likely to wash out some Lyrid meteors in 2014, a portion of these Lyrid meteors should be bright enough to overcome the moonlit glare.
Another beautiful feature of the Lyrids to watch for … about one quarter of these swift meteors exhibit persistent trains – that is, ionized gas trails that glow for a few seconds after the meteor has passed.
Comet Thatcher is the source of the Lyrid meteors. Every year, in the later part of April, our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1), of which there are no photographs due to its roughly a 415-year orbit around the sun. Comet Thatcher last visited the inner solar system in 1861, before the photographic process became widespread. This comet isn’t expected to return until the year 2276.
Bits and pieces shed by this comet litter its orbit and bombard the Earth’s upper atmosphere at 177,000 kilometers (110,000 miles) per hour. The vaporizing debris streaks the nighttime with medium-fast Lyrid meteors.
If Earth passes through an unusually thick clump of comet rubble, an elevated number of meteors could be in store.
What was that date again? So heads up in late April! The Lyrids will probably be best between midnight and dawn on April 22, 2014. The light of the last quarter moon will interfere, but if you’re out there with friends, a lawn chair to recline on, a sleeping bag to stay warm and thermos of something hot to drink … you’ll have fun.
Bottom line: Remember that the Lyrids aren’t the year’s best meteor shower. In the Northern Hemisphere, that distinction often goes to the Perseids in August or the Geminids in December. But the Lyrids do offer 10 to 20 meteors per hour at their peak on a moonless night; in 2014, the last quarter moon will likely temper the production before dawn on April 22. Try watching on the evening of April 22, too, through dawn April 23. And remember that, like all meteor showers, the Lyrids aren’t altogether predictable. In rare instances, they can bombard the sky with up to nearly 100 meteors per hour.