Don’t miss this weekend’s Lyrid Meteor Shower

The best time to see the Lyrid meteor shower is early Monday morning April 22 after moonset and before dawn. Shower members will appear to shoot from a spot in the sky near Vega in the constellation Lyra, hence the name. This map shows the sky around 3:30 a.m. facing southeast. Created with Stellarium

It’s been practically forever since our last meteor shower. Anyone here recall the early January Quadrantids? After a dry spell of more than 3 months, the Lyrid shower finally steps up to bat. Welcome as a spring shower, they peak this weekend with maximum meteor counts expected late Sunday night through dawn Monday.

Unlike the August Perseids and December Geminids, the Lyrid shower is not a blockbuster. With rates of 10-20 meteors per hour, we might call it modest at best. The shower will appear to originate from a point in the sky southwest of the bright star Vega in the Summer Triangle figure.

While you can look for meteors earlier in the night – say after 11 p.m. when Vega and the Lyrid radiant first come up in the eastern sky – moonlight will drown out the fainter meteors. Photo: Bob King

Moonlight comes into play during this year’s Lyrids. The waxing gibbous moon sets in the wee hours before dawn, leaving only a 1-2 hour window of dark skies.

The good news? That’s the same time the Lyrid meteor radiant, the point in the sky from which the shower members appear to radiate, is highest.

If you’re game for a look, head out Monday morning April 22 from about 3:30 to 5 a.m. toting a proper cup of tea or coffee. Make sure you’re bundled up for the weather and get cozy in a reclining lawn chair under a blanket or sleeping bag. Some meteor watchers prefer just watching spread-eagled on the ground. Face south or east and enjoy the grand vista of the summer stars and the fun surprise of an occasional meteor.

A bit of Comet Thatcher burning up in the atmosphere as a meteor shot from the window of the International Space Station over the Caribbean Sea April 21, 2012. Credit: NASA

While the late winter and spring constellations grace the evening sky, if you’re out before dawn, the Earth will have rotated those has-beens off to western horizonland. In the east and south, behold Scorpius, Sagittarius and the Summer Triangle.

Lyrids are the dusty, pebbly debris left behind by Comet Thatcher, discovered by American amateur astronomer A.E. Thatcher in 1861. Every spring for at least the past 2,700 years, Earth has passed through the trail, thrilling countless sky watchers with the sight of flaming dust and grit.

Heated by their passage near the sun, comets shed gas, ice, dust particles and rocks. If the comet’s orbit intersects Earth’s some of material strikes our atmosphere and we see a meteor. Credit: National Science Foundation

Lyrid meteors strike the upper atmosphere 60 miles overhead at better than 107,000 mph (173,000 km/sec) and burn up in eye-catching flashes. Typical meteoroids – the name given to meteors before they hit the atmosphere – range in size from grains of sand to walnuts. The bigger they are, the brighter.

While Lyrid numbers are modest, the shower occasionally surprises as it did in 687 B.C. when the Chinese reported “stars fell like rain.” More recently in 1982, a brief burst of 90 meteors per hour was observed.

So you never know. The only way to find out what the Lyrids will be up to in 2013 is to be there.

6 thoughts on “Don’t miss this weekend’s Lyrid Meteor Shower

  1. Dear Bob,
    I wrote this up last week so I wouldn’t foget the details. The morning of April 14, I was attempting to observe Comet PANSTARRS near Cassiopeia when I saw the brightest meteor in my experience. I estimate the magnitude at -10 to -12, based on the brightest Iridium flares around -8. It started in the ENE, about 40° above the horizon, and descended at a sharp angle, ending maybe 10° high in the NE–total duration around two seconds or less. This occurred a little after 3:00 AM MST; 3:30 at the latest. It moved very fast, got extremely bright and distinctly green, went through some atmospheric haze (or perhaps blew off smoke or debris), and got much redder as it faded out–kind of like a time-lapse sunset. I was amazed at how phenomenally bright it got while still appearing like a moving point, similar to a welder’s arc. I’d heard of “green fireballs” but never seen a meteor with this unmistakable hue before. So, my Q is, which is more likely: a Lyrid 8 or 9 days before shower peak or a sporadic that just happens to originate in Lyra? Thanks for all the great info, keep up the good work. P.S., am I doing something wrong, or is Comet Lemmon still hopeless?
    Norman Sanker

    • Hi Norman,
      Wow, what a great meteor! It’s possible it was a Lyrid but just as likely to be a sporadic. You’re not doing anything wrong with Comet Lemmon – it’s too near the sun and in bright morning twilight at the moment. Wait till the first week of May when it appears in the east at dawn. I’ll make a finder map at the end of this month.

    • Hi Brittney,
      There’s a chance but the moon will be more of a problem tonight (and tomorrow morning) than this morning. If you care to look, from midnight till dawn would be best. If you’re out on the midnight end, face east. Near dawn, south’s better.

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