Astronomy Essentials

2024 Lyrid meteor shower: All you need to know

Earth's globe with lines pointing towards the moon, sun and meteors overhead.
The 2024 Lyrid meteor shower, seen in earth mode (above the earth’s surface, looking down). Chart via Guy Ottewell’s 2024 Astronomical Calendar. Used with permission.

The annual Lyrid meteor shower always brings an end to the meteor drought that occurs each year between January and mid-April.

When to watch in 2024: Late evening April 21 until dawn April 22 will be best. The predicted** peak is 9:23 UTC on April 22. The peak of the Lyrids is narrow (no weeks-long stretches of meteor-watching, as with some showers). In 2024, the full moon falls at 23:49 UTC on April 23. So meteor watching will be impacted by a bright waxing gibbous moon.
Radiant: Rises before midnight, highest in the sky at dawn.
Nearest moon phase: Full moon falls at 23:49 UTC on April 23. So a bright waxing gibbous moon will be in the sky during the peak morning for the 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!

Read more: Meteors in moonlight: 6 tips for 2024’s Lyrids

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.

Report a fireball (very bright meteor) to the American Meteor Society: it’s fun and easy!

The Lyrid meteor shower parent comet

From the late, great Don Machholz (1952-2022), who discovered 12 comets …

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?

The answer is no. 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 roughly 415 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 2070, and then begin its return trip to reach its next perihelion around year 2283.

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.

Animation of blazing meteor expanding to fireball as it flies from right to left.
Meteors and comets are 2 different things. This image shows a “fireball” – a very bright meteor – falling earthward. During a meteor shower, meteor watchers most often see earthgrazer fireballs like this one in the early part of the night. Image via Wikipedia (public domain)/ NASA/ George Varros.

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.

Diagram: oblique view of orbits of planets with part of comet's orbit arcing through them.
View larger. | Comet Thatcher on January 1, 1861, the year of discovery and observed return past Earth. This comet takes 417 years to complete one orbit around the sun. The debris left behind in its orbit causes the Lyrid meteor shower. Image via JPL Small-Body Database.

How to find the Lyrid meteor shower 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.

Chart showing constellation Lyra and radial arrows from meteor shower radiant point near it.
Lyrid meteors radiate from near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp. You don’t need to identify Vega or Lyra in order to watch the Lyrid meteor shower. But you do need to know when the radiant rises, in this case in the northeast before midnight. That’s why the Lyrids are typically best between midnight and dawn. You’ll see the most meteors after the radiant has come over the horizon. The meteors radiate from there, but will appear unexpectedly, in any and all parts of the sky. Image via EarthSky.
Round chart with labeled constellations and stars, and radial lines marked 'Lyrids' near Lyra.
The radiant point of the 2024 Lyrid meteor shower, seen here in sky mode (from the the earth’s surface, looking up). IChart via Guy Ottewell’s 2024 Astronomical Calendar. Used with permission.

Lyrid meteors and Earth, from space

On the night of April 21, 2012, the Lyrid meteor shower peaked in the skies over Earth. Astronaut Don Pettit aboard the International Space Station trained his camera on Earth. Video footage from that night can be seen in the video below. The bright points of light are the meteors ablating — or burning up — in Earth’s atmosphere.

Video via NASA.

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.

Ancient Chinese drawing of Confucius, old bearded man in Chinese costume.
Portrait of Confucius. Was he a meteor-watcher? Image via Wikipedia (public domain).

Lyrid meteor photos from the EarthSky community

Submit your night sky photos to EarthSky here

Lyrid meteor in starry, Milky Way sky and rocks in foreground.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Nils Ribi captured this image in Utah on April 17, 2023, and wrote: “I was setting up to photograph the Milky Way over the Windows section of Arches National Park in the very early morning hours of April 17, 2023. As I was, I noticed a couple Lyrid meteors in the northeast sky. I set the camera up in that direction and was able to capture a couple of photos. This is the best one. I then proceeded to get a nice pano photo of the Milky Way over the North Window. Life is good!” Thank you, Nils!
Red rock formations with fuzzy band of stars across sky and vertical streak of light.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Cecilia Ray in Sedona, Arizona, captured this photo of the Milky Way and a meteor on April 14, 2021. She wrote: “I was running a time lapse of the Milky Way rising. As I went through about 600 images, this meteor appeared only in this photo. Unbelievable. This was my first Milky Way.” Great catch, Cecilia! Thank you.
Dark blue sky with clouds and six scattered short white streaks at different angles.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | In 2020, Thomas Hollowell in Colorado wrote: “The Lyrid meteor shower put on a little show in the half hour before astronomical twilight began … The 6 meteors in this frame were stacked in Photoshop on a set of 3 background frames.” Thanks, Thomas!

Bottom line: The Lyrid meteor shower offers 10 to 15 meteors per hour at its peak on a moonless night. In 2024, a bright waxing gibbous moon will compete with Lyrid meteors. Best time to watch: late evening to dawn on the nights of April 21-22 and 22-23.

**Predicted peak times and dates meteor showers are from the American Meteor Society. Note that meteor shower peak times can vary. Back to top

Visit EarthSky’s meteor shower guide

Meteor showers: Tips for watching the show

Posted 
April 19, 2024
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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