Earth is treating its inhabitants to quite a show for Earth Month. There was the Virginids meteor shower, for example, plus a double shadow transit of Jupiter, a crescent moon sidling up to Mars and a glimpse of Pallas, one of the largest asteroids in the solar system. The main event for April skywatching, however, is often the Lyrid meteor shower. The 2019 Lyrid shower started last week, but the peak arrives on Earth Day, April 22.
The Lyrids appear each year from about April 16 to 25, according to NASA, but activity is low until the peak night, so the 2019 show is just beginning. This year’s peak should begin the night of April 22 and intensify into the predawn hours on April 23.
The Lyrids can be dazzling, but as with any meteor shower, they’re sometimes muted by moonlight. And since the moon was full on April 19 this year, buzz for the 2019 Lyrids is lower than it was in 2018, when the shower fell near the new moon. The Lyrids normally produce about 15 meteors per hour during their peak, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS), and although fewer may be visible this year, many skywatchers are still gearing up for the 2019 Lyrids, according to EarthSky.
This humble April shower isn’t known for downpours like August’s Perseids or November’s Leonids, but it has gone torrential a few times in recent centuries. As MNN’s Michael D’Estries points out, up to 100 Lyrids per hour were reported in both 1982 and 1922, and the 1803 shower brought an amazing 700 per hour.
The Lyrids are named after the constellation Lyra, because that arrangement of stars — including Vega — marks the place in the sky where these meteors seem to originate, at least from our earthbound perspective. But Lyra is just a convenient reference point and namesake; Vega is 25 light-years away, for example, while meteors sizzle in our atmosphere only 60 miles above the surface.
The true source of the Lyrids is Comet Thatcher, a long-period comet that last visited the inner solar system in 1861. Earth passes through its orbital path every April, crashing into a cloud of comet debris left behind more than 150 years ago. As that rubble strikes Earth’s upper atmosphere at 110,000 miles per hour, it vaporizes into visible streaks of light. Thatcher, meanwhile, is far away in its 415-year orbit around the sun, and won’t return to our neck of the woods until 2276.
Viewers in the Northern Hemisphere can boost their chances of seeing a Lyrid by fleeing brightly lit urban areas and being patient. The odds also improve as Lyra ascends in the sky, which is why the best views occur around and after midnight.
The Lyrids are fairly fast meteors, unlike December’s Geminids, but they tend to be bright. About a quarter also create glowing trails of ionized gas known as persistent trains, assisting skywatchers by leaving an ephemeral trace of their trajectory.