Meteor season is back with the annual Lyrid meteor shower. The first three months of most years represent a relative dry spell for night sky watchers, as typically not much happens between thein early January and the Lyrids. The Lyrids signal a welcome return of the chance to venture out in the evening amid mild temperatures, and they officially became active this week.
But that’s just the beginning. The Lyrids build to a peak on the evening of April 21 into the early morning hours of April 22. If you can’t get out that night or the weather doesn’t cooperate where you are, one night before or after the peak is also expected to present a pretty good viewing opportunity as well.
The Lyrids don’t produce a whole lot of meteors, perhaps 10 to 15 per hour, but are more likely to include bright, dramatic fireballs than other major showers. Every few decades we get an outburst during the Lyrids that boosts the rate up to about 100 per hour. That’s not predicted to happen in 2021, but such things are also notoriously hard to predict.
The source of the Lyrids is the debris cloud left behind by a comet named C/1861 G1 Thatcher that was last seen in the 19th century and won’t pass through the inner solar system again for more than two centuries. Each year, though, our planet drifts through the dust cloud it left behind on previous visits. Little space pebbles and other bits of dust and debris collide with our atmosphere and burn up high above us, producing those fleeting little light shows so many are willing to stay up late or wake up early to catch.
This year, with a moon that will be more than two-thirds full at the peak of the Lyrids, it’s probably best to try and see the show before dawn and after the moon has set at your location.
2020 Perseid meteor shower photos shine bright in a dark year
But this doesn’t mean viewing in the evening will necessarily be fruitless. The hours after dusk can offer a good chance to capture a bright “Earth grazer” along the horizon.
Whenever you go out to look for Lyrids, get as far away from light pollution as possible and find a spot like an open field or hilltop with a broad, unobstructed view of the night sky. Lie down, let your eyes adjust, relax and just watch.
It’s not necessary to look at a particular part of the sky, but the Lyrids will appear to emanate outward from their namesake constellation Lyra, traveling away from that part of the sky like spokes on a wheel. So if you can find Lyra and orient yourself towards it, that’s great but absolutely not required.
Stay warm, stay safe and enjoy the space show! If you amateur astrophotographers happen to catch any great Lyrid fireballs, please share them with me on Twitter @EricCMack.
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