The predicted peak night for the 2013 Lyrid meteor shower is before dawn on April 22. Will you see meteors on that night, the night until before dawn April 23? Maybe. Try watching from late night Monday (April 22) until dawn Tuesday (April 23). The main problem: there’s lots of moonlight on this night. Usually, the hour before dawn is best, regardless of your location on the globe. The Lyrids are generally a modest shower, offering perhaps 10 to 20 meteors per hour in a dark, moonless sky. What, no meteors? No problem. Use your time outdoors to check out the constellation Lyra the Harp.
The chart at the top of this page shows the constellation Lyra the Harp, radiant point for the Lyrid meteor shower. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, Lyra rises over your north-northeastern horizon around 10 p.m. tonight. What is a radiant point? If you see a meteor tonight, you can trace its path backwards to find that it radiated from the constellation Lyra. Yet you don’t have to know how to identify Lyra – or even know its direction in the sky – to see a meteor in this annual shower. Meteors often don’t become visible until they are 30 degrees or so from their radiant point. In other words, the meteors will appear in any and all parts of the sky after Lyra ascends over the horizon in late evening.
It’s fun to find a meteor shower’s radiant point, though, and Lyra is easy to spot. The constellation Lyra is easy to see because it’s small and compact. Many people see it as a little triangle set on top of an oblique parallelogram.
If you’re standing out there looking, you might also try checking out some of the stars in Lyra. The constellation is dominated by the brilliant star Vega. Vega is sometimes called the Harp Star.
This tiny but prominent constellation represents a lyre, an ancient musical instrument that is essentially a small harp. In Greek mythology, Lyra represents the lyre or harp of the musician Orpheus. It was said that when Orpheus played this instrument, neither mortal nor god could turn away.
There are several other interesting sights for small telescopes within the constellation Lyra. One is the star Epsilon Lyrae, just to the lower left of Vega on our chart. This is the famed double-double star, which means that in binoculars it appears as a double star, but each of those stars also appears as a double in a telescope. In other words, the single point we see with the eye as Epsilon Lyrae is at least four stars.
Another interesting object is M57, the Ring Nebula, located between the Beta and Gamma stars of Lyra. These are the two stars farthest from Vega, to the lower right on the chart. M57 is roughly halfway between them, and appears as a faint ellipse – like a smoke ring – in a telescope. It is a planetary nebula, the remant of a sun-like star that shed its outer layers and died.
Since the shower’s radiant point – the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate – is fairly far north, by the way, these meteors are better seen from the Northern Hemisphere than from the southern part of Earth’s globe. The best time to watch the 2013 Lyrids is after moonset and before dawn. Sometimes, the Lyrids can surprise you by producing several times the usual number of meteors – but you never know.
Bottom line: In 2013, the Lyrid meteor shower peaks on the night of April 21-22. Before dawn April 22 is probably the best time to watch. You might also catch some Lyrid meteors on the night of April 22-23, 2013 as well. The moon will be in the way. The shower typically produces about 10-20 meteors per hour. See if you can find the star Vega, and its constellation Lyra the Harp. The meteors radiate from Lyra: hence their name.