Not all of April’s showers are soggy and flower-inducing. Late April is also the season of the Lyrids, the second of the year’s established meteor showers. So get thee to the rooftops and wide open fields: The shower peaks tonight.
The Lyrid meteors are pieces of the comet Thatcher, discovered and last seen in 1861, the most recent year it reached perihelion, the point in its orbit closest to the sun. (Thatcher takes 415.5 years to orbit the sun; it is expected to return in 2276.)
Every April those space scraps hit Earth’s atmosphere at 109,600 miles per hour, “vaporizing from friction with the air and leaving behind the streaks of light we call meteors,” Astronomy Magazine explains.
Meteor showers are named after the constellation coinciding with the area in the sky from which the meteors seem to emanate. Lyrids are so named because they appear to come from a point in the constellation Lyra.
The Lyrids are as much a part of April as Tax Day, but their visibility is variable. According to Sky and Telescope, this could be a banner year for spotting the meteors, with conditions Friday night close to ideal:
“If clear sky prevails Saturday morning (April 22nd), we might expect to see between 10–20 meteors per hour under dark, moonless skies.
“The radiant is located in eastern Hercules near the border with Lyra, well up in the eastern sky by local midnight. Best viewing should occur between between 2 a.m. and dawn Saturday when Hercules rides high in the south. Expect little lunar interference — the waning crescent won’t rise until shortly before the start of morning twilight.”
Space.com also predicts conditions will be “good-to-excellent” for North American skywatchers, as “25-day-old waning crescent moon will not rise until after 4 a.m. local time on April 22, thus assuring dark skies most of the night.”
Lyrids aren’t generally as numerous as some other annual meteor showers, but they tend to be bright and fast. So wake early or stay up late, celestial searchers, and take NASA’s standing advice: “Simply find a dark, open sky away from artificial lights. Lie down comfortably on a blanket or lawn chair, and look straight up.”