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Everything you need to know: Lyrid meteor shower

Full moon is out all night at the peak of this year’s Lyrid meteor shower. Best time to watch before dawn on April 22, 2016, but … will you see any meteors?

The full moon is out all night long, from dusk April 21 till dawn April 22. That's not good news for this year's Lyrid meteor shower, which is expected to produce the greatest number of Lyrids in the predawn hours on April 22, 2016.

The full moon is out all night long, from dusk April 21 until dawn April 22. That’s not good news for this year’s Lyrid meteor shower, which is expected to produce the greatest number of Lyrids in the predawn hours on April 22, 2016.

The annual Lyrid meteor shower is active each year from about April 16 to 25. In 2016, the peak of this shower – which tends to come in a burst and usually lasts for less than a day – is expected to fall on the morning of April 22, though under the glaring light of the full moon. The greatest number of meteors usually fall during the few hours before dawn. In 2016, however, the timing couldn’t be much worse as the peak of the Lyrid shower comes at virtually the same hour as the April 2016 full moon. All in all … the Lyrid meteor shower prospects are about as unfavorable as they get in 2016! But if you’re game, give it a go anyway, as a bright Lyrid meteor or two just may overcome the moon-drenched night sky. Follow the links below to learn more about April’s shooting stars!

How many Lyrids meteors can I expect to see in 2016?

Where is the radiant point for the Lyrid meteor shower?

Lyrid meteors in history.

Comet Thatcher is the source of the Lyrid meteors.

View larger. | Simon Waldram in the Canary Islands caught this Lyrid meteor on the night of April 20-21, 2014.  Thank you, Simon!

View larger. | Simon Waldram in the Canary Islands caught this Lyrid meteor on the night of April 20-21, 2014. Thank you, Simon!

A fireball meteor falling earthward, courtesy of NASA/George Varros

How many Lyrids meteors can I expect to see in 2016? You might spot a Lyrid meteor anytime during the shower (April 16-25), but the most meteors will probably fall in the dark hours before dawn on April 22. In a moonless sky, you might see from about 10 to 20 Lyrid meteors an hour at the shower’s peak. But this year, in 2016, the full moon and the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower fall on the same date. So you’ll see far fewer meteors, if any!

Of course, 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 2016).

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.

Let’s hope there’s no Lyrid outburst in 2016. These outbursts are few and far between, and, this year, no matter how many meteors are falling, the full moon will drown most meteors from view.

By the way, if you do see a meteor … notice whether it leaves a persistent train – that is, an ionized gas trail that glows for a few seconds after the meteor has passed. About a quarter of Lyrid meteors do leave persistent trains.

The radiant point of the Lyrid meteor shower is near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp.

The radiant point of the Lyrid meteor shower is near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp.

Another view of the brilliant star Vega, which nearly coincides with the radiant point of April’s Lyrid meteor shower. Image via AlltheSky

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. This is only a chance alignment, for these meteors burn up in the atmosphere about 100 kilometers – or 60 miles – up. Meanwhile, Vega lies trillions of times farther away at 25 light-years. Yet it’s from Vega’s constellation Lyra that the Lyrid meteor shower takes its name.

You don’t need to identify Vega or its constellation Lyra in order to watch the Lyrid meteor shower. The idea that you must recognize a meteor shower’s radiant point in order to see any meteors is completely false. Any meteors visible the sky often appear unexpectedly, in any and all parts of the sky.

However, knowing the rising time of the radiant point helps you know when the shower is best in your sky. The higher Vega climbs into the sky, the more meteors you’re likely to see. Be aware that the star Vega resides quite far north of the celestial equator, so for that reason the Lyrid meteor shower favors the Northern Hemisphere.

Around the Lyrids’ peak, the star Vega rises above your local horizon – in the northeast – around 9 to 10 p.m. local time (that’s the time on your clock, from Northern Hemisphere locations). It climbs upward through the night. By midnight, Vega is high enough in the sky that meteors radiating from her direction streak across your sky.

Just before dawn, Vega and the radiant point shine high overhead. That’s one reason the meteors are always more numerous before dawn.

Portrait of Confucius.

Portrait of Confucius.

Lyrid meteors in history. 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.

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 Confucius saw any Lyrid meteors …

Lyrids and others via NASA/MSFC/D. Moser

Lyrids and others via NASA/MSFC/D. Moser

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.

It’s when Earth passes through an unusually thick clump of comet rubble that an elevated number of meteors can be seen.

Bottom line: The Lyrid meteor shower offers 10 to 20 meteors per hour at its peak on a moonless night. In 2016, the peak is the morning of April 22. The full moon occurs on the peak night of this year’s Lyrid shower, leaving no moon-free hours for watching meteors. 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. No Lyrid meteor storm is expected this year … but you never know.

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2016

See it! Best photos from last year’s Lyrid meteor shower

Bruce McClure

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