A bright Moon hinders this year’s Lyrid meteor shower, which peaks April 22. Our satellite reaches Last Quarter phase the same morning, rising around 2 a.m. local daylight time. The best show should come in the hour before then, but don’t rule out the pre-dawn hours afterward.
If you stay out later, you still could see the brightest Lyrids. “The key to observing meteors when the Moon is in the sky is to face away from Luna,” says Astronomy Contributing Editor Mike Reynolds.
Astronomers evaluate meteor shower strengths by their hourly rates. At the peak of the Lyrids, you should expect to see the shower generate up to 20 meteors per hour under a moonless sky free from most light pollution. “Add that to the six or so non-shower meteors you can see each hour,” says Reynolds, “and you’re up to almost one shooting star every two minutes, on average.”
The shower’s radiant — the point from which the meteors appear to emanate — lies in the constellation Lyra near that group’s brightest star, Vega (Alpha Lyrae). The radiant passes nearly overhead just before dawn. Don’t stare at that point, however. Observers get their best results (largest meteor counts) by looking roughly one-third of the way across the sky from the radiant. And feel free to glance around. That won’t hurt your chances.
Viewers need no special equipment or optics. In fact, the eyes alone work best because they offer the largest possible field of view. A reclining lawn chair will help with comfort, as will a blanket and a warm (non-alcoholic) beverage.
All meteor showers except the Quadrantids and December’s Geminids originate from comets. When a comet swings around the Sun, it leaves a trail of debris (small meteoroids). Sometimes, the orbit of this debris crosses Earth’s orbit. When Earth runs into this stream of particles, we experience a meteor shower. The Lyrids are particles that were once part of Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1).
Interesting facts about meteors
- To be visible, a meteor must be within about 120 miles (200 kilometers) of an observer.
- Meteors become visible at an average height of 55 miles (90km). Nearly all burn up before they reach an altitude of 50 miles (80km).
- The typical bright meteor is produced by a particle with a mass less than 1 gram with a size no larger than a pea.
- The hourly rate on a “non-shower” night is approximately six meteors per hour.
- A meteoroid enters the atmosphere at a velocity between 50,000 and 165,000 mph (81,000 and 265,000 km/h).