Meteor showers are the best time to look at the night skies in search of ‘shooting stars’. Meteors are particles of dust and other space particles that hit the earth’s atmosphere and burn up, causing a stream of light that we can see passing through the atmosphere until it winks out as all the dust is burnt. These particles are correctly termed meteoroids and micrometeoroids, and most of the ones we see are about the size of a grain of sand.
In April, from 16th to 26th each year, the Earth passes through the trail of the Comet Thatcher, and this trail is full of dust – hence we get lots of meteors during the period – with some showers it can be as many as one a minute, but the Lyrids peak at about one every 5 minutes. The concentration of meteors makes it a meteor shower because it seems to come from one place in the sky – in this case near the constellation Lyra, which is why they are called the Lyrids.
So, here we are on the 14th – and the Lyrids will start Thursday night, peaking next Wednesday 22nd and it’ll be all over the following weekend. You may see a meteor any day, but it’s all a matter of luck, looking in the right place at the right time.
Recipe for successful Lyrid-watching:
- Find a nice spot with good all-round visibility, but especially in the direction of the constellation Lyra (north-east ish – you need to check a star map for that) and as little light pollution as you can.
- Select a chair you can lie back in and watch the skies. A deck chair or hammock is ideal, I use a sunbed.
- Choose a clear night, or one with very little cloud.
- If you want to make a night of it, make a thermos of hot drink or something similar, and wrap up in blankets or a sleeping bag. Remember that Lyra moves just like the moon does!
- If you have a Lyrid party, make sure everyone respects the need to keep your night vision, keep flashlights pointing down or off.
- Wrap up warm and settle yourself in your chair looking in the right direction
- You don’t need binoculars or a telescope – these babies move too fast.
- You could try getting pictures – especially if you have a tripod and can set the camera to take long exposures.
- Enjoy the natural phenomenon of the Lyrids!
Want to know when to watch meteor showers? Check out the EarthSky meteor shower guide.