We celebrate Earth Day this upcoming Tuesday, a time to reflect on how each of us can better our environment. It also happens to be the peak of the annual Lyrid meteor shower.
The Lyrids reliably shoot from the sky every mid to late April, peaking overnight April 21-22 this year. I’ve seen the Lyrids on a couple occasions and can vouch that it’s a reliable though not particularly rich meteor shower. Normal rates are 10 to 20 meteors per hour, but light from the last quarter moon will reduce this year’s count to 5-10 per hour.
The greatest number of meteors are seen when the radiant, the point in the sky from which they appear to stream, is highest. That occurs just before dawn Tuesday morning. But because the moon doesn’t rise until 2-2:30 a.m., you might do just as well catching the Lyrids from midnight till 2. The radiant will be moderately high in the east and the sky still dark.
While the Lyrids implies an association with the constellation Lyra, home to the brilliant star Vega, the meteors shoot from a location in eastern Hercules 7 degrees southwest of Vega. Each one you see is small bit of dust or rock left behind by Comet Thatcher which last appeared in 1861 and won’t again until 2276.
Each April, Earth passes through Thatcher’s stream of debris and we see the pieces flare as meteors when they strike the air overhead.
Their average speed is 105,000 mph (169,000 km/hr). That’s almost 3 times faster than the current fastest moving spacecraft in the solar system, Voyager 1, at 38,000 mph (61,000 km/hr).
Not a major shower, the Lyrids still occasionally surprise with fireballs and rich outbursts of meteors. Counts were much higher than normal in 1803, 1849, 1850, 1884, 1922, 1945, and 1982. Both Ludwig von Beethoven and famous astronomer William Herschel were around for the 1803 Lyrids which topped out at more than 500 per hour!
To watch the shower, either take the ‘early shift’ from midnight-2:30 a.m. and face east or dare to challenge the moon between 2 and dawn when Hercules and Vega are high in southern sky. I usually spice up my meteor watching with a look through the telescope at the bright planets. Mars shines due south now around midnight with Saturn further off to the southeast.
One final note. The moon will be very close to the star Beta in Capricornus Tuesday morning. Take a look at it in binoculars. If you live in the western half of the U.S., Beta will be occulted by the moon around 4:30 a.m. Mountain time, 3:30 a.m. Pacific. Midwesterners might still see it in bright twilight around 5:30 a.m. with a small telescope. Look immediately to the left of east of the moon’s bright edge.
Invite a friend to join you, boil up some tea and relax under the stars. Every meteor you see is a gift.