The Lyrid Meteor Shower: When It Occurs and How to See It

A finder chart for the Lyrids.
Use this chart to check out the general location of the Lyrid meteor shower each April.

Carolyn Collins Petersen, created using Stellarium. 

Every April, the Lyrid meteor shower, one of many yearly meteor showers, sends a cloud of dust and tiny rocks the size of a grain of sand hurtling to Earth. Most of these meteors vaporize in the atmosphere before reaching our planet.

Key Takeaways

  • The Lyrid Meteor shower, so named because it appears to stream from the constellation Lyra, occurs every April 16 to 26th with the peak taking place on April 22 into April 23
  • Observers may see between 10 to 20 meteors per hour in a normal year, but during the heavy peaks that occur every 60 or so years, dozens or even hundreds of meteors may be visible
  • Comet 1861 G1/Thatcher is the source of dust particles that become Lyrid meteors

When to See the Lyrids

A wonderful thing about the Lyrids is that they aren't just a one-night occurrence. They begin around April 16 and last until April 26th. The peak of the shower occurs on April 22, and the best time for viewing is after midnight (technically early morning on the 23rd). Observers can normally expect to see anywhere from 10 to 20 flashes of light per hour, all streaming from the area near the constellation Lyra. At that time of year, Lyra is best visible in the hours after midnight on the 22nd. 

Tips for Observing the Lyrids

The best advice for watching the Lyrids shower is true for almost any meteor swarm. Observers should try to watch from a dark-sky site. If that's not possible, then it's best to at least get out of the glare of nearby lights. Chances of seeing the shower are also much better if there's not bright moonlight. On nights when the Moon is full and bright, the best choice is to go out around midnight and look for meteors before the Moon rises.

To see the Lyrids, observers should keep an eye out for meteors that look as though they have originated from the constellation Lyra, the Harp. In reality, the meteors don't actually come from these stars; it merely looks that way because the Earth passes through the stream of dust and particles, which appears to be in the direction of the constellation. Luckily for meteor watchers, Earth passes through many such streams throughout the year, which is why we see so many meteor showers.

incoming meteor
Looking at an incoming meteor descend through Earth's atmosphere, as seen from the International Space Station. NASA

What Causes the Lyrids? 

The meteor shower particles that create the Lyrids are actually the debris and dust left behind from the Comet 1861 G1/Thatcher. The comet orbits the Sun once every 415 years and sheds a great deal of material as it passes through our solar system. Its closest approach to the Sun brings it to about the same distance as Earth, but its most distant point is way out in the Kuiper Belt, 110 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. Along the way, the comet's path experiences the gravitational pull of other planets such as Jupiter. That disturbs the dust stream, with the result that approximately every sixty years, Earth encounters a thicker-than-usual part of the comet's stream. When that happens, observers might see as many as 90 or 100 meteors per hour. Occasionally a fireball streams through the sky during the shower, indicating a piece of cometary debris that's somewhat larger—perhaps the size of a rock or a ball. 

Other well-known meteor showers caused by comets are the Leonids, caused by Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, and Comet P1/Halley, which brings material to Earth in the form of the Orionids.

Did You Know?

Friction between the gases that make up our atmosphere and small particles (meteors) causes meteors to heat up and glow. Typically, the heat destroys them, but occasionally a larger piece survives and lands on the Earth, at which point the debris is called a meteorite. 

The most significant outbursts of Lyrid meteors in recent times were recorded starting in 1803. Thereafter, they occurred in 1862, 1922, and 1982. If the trend continues, the next heavy outburst for Lyrid watchers will be in the year 2042. 

A Lyrid meteor as seen by an allsky camera studying the sky in April 2013. MSFC Meteoroid Environment Office 

The History of the Lyrids

People have been seeing meteors from the Lyrid shower for well over two thousand years. The first known mention of them was made in the year 687 BCE, recorded by a Chinese observer. The largest known Lyrid shower sent an amazing 700 meteors per hour through Earth's skies. That occurred in 1803 and it lasted for several hours as Earth plowed through a very thick path of dust from the comet. 

Watching isn't the only way to experience meteor showers. Today, some amateur radio operators and astronomers track Lyrids and other meteors by capturing radio echoes from meteoroids as they flash through the sky. They tune by tracking a phenomenon known as forward radio scattering, which detects pings from the meteoroids as they strike our atmosphere.

Sources

  • “In Depth | Lyrids – Solar System Exploration: NASA Science.” NASA, NASA, 14 Feb. 2018, solarsystem.nasa.gov/asteroids-comets-and-meteors/meteors-and-meteorites/lyrids/in-depth/.
  • NASA, NASA, science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/1999/ast27apr99_1.
  • SpaceWeather.com -- News and Information about Meteor Showers, Solar Flares, Auroras, and near-Earth Asteroids, www.spaceweather.com/meteors/lyrids/lyrids.html.