Lyrid Meteor Shower to Peak Around Earth Day

A Lyrid meteor streaks over northern New Mexico on Earth Day 2013. (Photo: Mike Lewinski [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

While so many of us are spending so much time at home sheltering in place, the planet is treating its inhabitants to quite a show for Earth Month. There was the pink moon early in the month, Comet ATLAS drawing closer and brighter, and Venus reaching its peak brightness for the year later in the month.

The main event for April skywatching, however, is often the Lyrid meteor shower. The 2020 Lyrid shower started this week and the peak arrives around April 21.

The Lyrids appear each year from about April 16 to 25, according to NASA, but activity is low until the peak night, so the 2020 show is just beginning. This year's peak should begin the nights of April 21 and morning of April 22, shortly before dawn, reports the American Meteor Society (AMS). The following early morning (April 23) might be good too, says EarthSky.

The Lyrids can be dazzling, but as with any meteor shower, they're sometimes muted by moonlight. Because the peak will happen only about two days from the new moon and will be just a thin crescent, moonlight won't hamper your viewing this year, NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke told Space.com.

The Lyrids normally produce about 15 meteors per hour during their peak. This year, meteor watchers can expect to see about 10 per hour, depending on how clear and dark the sky is, Cooke said.

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.

Where to look in the sky

The annual Lyrid meteor shower appears to radiate from the constellation Lyra the Harp, near the star Vega.
The Lyrids seem to radiate from the constellation Lyra the Harp, near the star Vega. (Photo: Islam Hassan [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

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.

To find Lyra, or the Harp as the constellation is also known, look directly overhead. Vega is one of the night sky's brightest stars and is visible every night of the year, assuming the skies are clear. It's located in the fourth quadrant of the northern hemisphere. Other constellations that are neighbors to Lyra include Cygnus, Draco, Hercules and Vulpecula, according to In-The-Sky.orgIn-The-Sky.org.

Lyra the lyre or harp constellation with the names of its main stars
Lyra is named after the lyre or harp that was often used in ancient times in Greece to accompany a person reading poetry or singing. (Photo: MattLphotography/Shutterstock)

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.

Lyrid meteor from space
NASA astronaut Don Pettit caught this Lyrid in 2012 from the International Space Station, with city lights and thunderstorms illuminating Cuba, Florida and the Southeastern U.S. in the background. (Photo: Don Pettit [public domain]/JSC/NASA)

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.

For more Lyrid details, check out this infographic from the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization, part of its efforts to promote a giant telescope being built in Chile. It was created for the 2019 shower but it's still relevant today.

Lyrid meteor shower infographic
Infographic about the Lyrid meteor shower from the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization. (Photo: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization)