The Lyrid meteor shower sparkles amid the arc of the Milky Way over Michigan's Tahquamenon Falls.
Each spring, sky-watchers get a chance to witness the Lyrids, one of the oldest known annual meteor showers.
The sky show is considered to be one of the most reliable, making its appearance each April. Best views of the glowing streaks happen when the sky is dark and moonless. So always check for current moonrise and set times before heading out to look for the shower.
The Lyrids are usually quite modest, with peak at rates of 15 to 20 meteors an hour. But this celestial event is also known to deliver bright and impressively fast streaks across Northern hemisphere skies, with surprise bursts of extra activity on rare occasions. Within the last century, the Lyrids produced meteor outbursts with rates clocked at over a hundred shooting stars an hour in 1922 and 1980.
The rates can change so dramatically because of the way meteor showers work. Like bugs hitting the windshield of a fast-moving car, meteors pelt Earth when the planet passes through a particularly dense part of the stream of debris left behind by a comet. (Here’s why Isaac Newton believed a comet caused the biblical event known as Noah’s flood.)
In case of the Lyrids, that debris comes from Comet Thatcher, which made its last close approach to the sun in 1861. The comet's 416-year orbit is skewed nearly perpendicular to the plane of the solar system, which helps keep the stream of material following behind the comet from being scattered by the gravitational pull of the planets. Astronomers believe this may be why the Lyrids have been a reliable sky show for centuries.
Records of the Lyrids stretch back more than 2,600 years. Chinese astronomers in 687 B.C. noted that this meteor shower was so prolific that the meteors were “falling like rain.” Fast forward to 1803, and newspaper articles tell of a Lyrid meteor storm that was widely witnessed across the eastern United States, with shooting stars continually falling in just about every direction, like rockets in reverse.
While meteors can appear in any part of the sky, most will seem to radiate from the shower's namesake constellation Lyra, the harp. Look for Lyra near the brilliant star Vega, which now shines nearly straight overhead in the predawn hours for stargazers across the Northern Hemisphere.
Because the shower’s radiant rises above the northeast horizon in the early evenings, observers should be able to see meteors all night long. In Southern Hemisphere skies, Lyra will be at or below the horizon, so viewers there will see just a sprinkling of meteors.
The meteors are mostly the size of grains of sand, and they burn up as they fall to Earth at speeds of more than a hundred thousand kilometers an hour. About 15 percent of them leave behind persistent, smoky trails that are clearly visible for a few minutes thereafter.
Sky-watchers should also be on the lookout for fireballs, which are space rocks that and can be as large as a golf ball or even a basketball when they hit the atmosphere and so are brighter than average meteors.
If you have clear skies, going to the dark countryside away from light pollution will increase your chances of seeing meteors. But even if you are stuck in bright suburbia, you may be able to catch at least half a dozen shooting stars an hour, with possibly a fireball or two mixed in over the course of the night.
Because the meteors race across much of the overhead sky, there is no need for binoculars or telescopes. In terms of equipment, reclining lawn chairs, warm blankets, and a hot chocolate are really all that you need to enjoy this spring shower.
Here’s to making many wishes!
Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, is the author of Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe and the second edition of The Backyard Guide to the Night Sky coming out March 2019. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.