2023 Lyrid meteor shower: All you need to know
When to watch in 2023: Late evening April 21 until dawn April 22 – or late evening April 22 until dawn April 23 – will be best. The predicted* peak is 1:06 UTC on April 23. And the peak of the Lyrids is narrow (no weeks-long stretches of meteor-watching, as with some showers). In 2023, new moon falls on April 19. Yay! No moon for 2023’s Lyrid meteor shower.
Radiant: Rises before midnight, highest in the sky at dawn.
Nearest moon phase: In 2023, new moon falls on April 19. There will be no moon in the sky during the peak mornings for 2023’s Lyrid meteor shower.
Duration of shower: April 15 to April 29.
Expected meteors at peak, under ideal conditions: In a dark sky with no moon, you might see 10 to 15 Lyrids per hour. The Lyrids are known for uncommon surges that can sometimes bring rates of up to 100 per hour! Read more about Lyrid outbursts below.
Note for Southern Hemisphere: This shower’s radiant point is far to the north on the sky’s dome. So the Southern Hemisphere will see fewer Lyrid meteors. Still, you might see some!
In a moonless sky, about a quarter of Lyrid meteors leave a persistent train, a trail of ionized gas that glows for a few seconds after the meteor has passed.
The Lyrids’ parent comet
Most meteor showers are caused by debris from a passing comet. For the Lyrids, the comet is named Comet Thatcher. Maybe you’re wondering:
Have I ever observed Comet Thatcher?
And your children won’t see it either. Astronomers first noticed this comet in 1861, around the time of its last perihelion, or closest point to the sun. It takes 417 years to go around the sun once. Its path brings it within the Earth’s orbit, then it goes really far away. How far? It goes to a distance of 110 astronomical units (AU). That’s 110 times farther from the sun than we are.
So Comet Thatcher is now far away, still traveling outward, away from our sun. It’ll reach its farthest point from the sun around the year 2283, and then begin its return trip.
The Lyrid meteor shower – spawned by this comet – seems to outburst, or produce an unexpectedly large number of meteors, every 60 years. The next Lyrid outburst is due in 2042. The outbursts happen because of the planets’ reshaping the long trail of comet debris left behind by Comet Thatcher in its long orbit. This debris is what intercepts Earth’s orbit yearly, to create the meteor shower.
Discovery of Comet Thatcher
Alfred E. Thatcher from New York City discovered this comet – now officially C/1861 G1 (Thatcher) – on April 5, 1861. At that time the comet was in the direction of our sky’s north polar region, toward what we see as the constellation Draco. Alfred Thatcher was using a 4.5-inch-diameter (11cm) refracting telescope, magnifying 30 times. The comet was shining at magnitude 7.5, fainter than the unaided eye can see. But over the next few weeks, as the comet approached both the sun and the Earth, it brightened considerably. It became visible to the eye and remained so until it disappeared into the evening twilight in early June 1861. Observers in the Southern Hemisphere picked it up in late July and followed the comet for the next five weeks, until it became too faint to see from anywhere on Earth.
Comet Thatcher will be back in the year 2278. But its debris trail, the Lyrid meteor shower, will be here every April.
How to find the Lyrids’ radiant point
From the Northern Hemisphere. the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra – near the radiant point for the Lyrid shower – rises above your local horizon, in the northeast, around 9 to 10 p.m. local time in April. That’s the time on your clock, from mid-latitudes, from the northern part of the globe. Vega climbs upward through the rest of the night. By midnight, Vega is high enough in the sky that meteors radiating from that direction streak across your sky. Just before dawn, Vega and the radiant point shine high overhead, and the meteors will be raining down from the top of the Northern Hemisphere sky.
From the far southerly Southern Hemisphere. Vega – and the Lyrid meteors’ radiant point – don’t rise until the hours before dawn from the southern mid-latitudes. From there, the radiant point never gets very high in the sky. Many of the meteors that come from this point head northward, below your horizon if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere. Thus, you have a narrower window for watching this particular, far-northern shower. Still, you might see some meteors!
The higher Vega appears in your sky, the more meteors you’re likely to see.
Lyrid meteor shower 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 seem to have observed the Lyrid meteors falling like rain in the year 687 BCE. That time period in ancient China, by the way, corresponds with what is called the Spring and Autumn Period (about 771 to 476 BCE), 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.
Lyrid meteor photos from the EarthSky community
Bottom line: The Lyrid meteor shower offers 10 to 15 meteors per hour at its peak on a moonless night. In 2023, the moon won’t be a factor to watch for Lyrid meteors. Best time to watch: late evening to dawn on the nights of April 21-22 and 22-23.