Lyrids shower 2015
Credit: Rocky Raybell via Flickr/CC by 2.0

Meteor showers are popular events for stargazers. Fortunately, there are a number of showings throughout the year that are very predictable, providing weather conditions and the moon's cycle (brightness/dimness) is cooperative. 

As spring kicks into full gear during the month of April, the Lyrid meteor showers sail into view. These showers typically make an appearance between April 16 and April 25 each year.

What is a Meteor Shower?

A meteor shower occurs when there is a spike in the number of meteors that streak through the sky. 1 Several times a year excited stargazers look out for the various showers as they make their annual cycle, but just what are meteor showers?

These dazzling displays are often referred to as "shooting stars" or "falling stars", but meteors are actually, for the most part, the debris left behind by various moving comets on their paths. When the Earth passes through the stream left by a comet, the meteors can be observed. These pretty forms of "star dust" are best seen in darker conditions. Experts can usually pinpoint for you the best times to view meteor showers as they make their appearances.

About Lyrids

The Lyrid meteor showers is one of the oldest documented ones on record. While not the brightest or "best" meteor shower of the year, Lyrid is considered to be the oldest known shower, as Time and Date notes.  Earth Sky provides additional detail, noting records of Lyrid date back approximately 2,700 years. History states ancient Chinese described the Lyrids meteor shower as "falling like rain" in the year 687 BC. 3

Lyrids originates from the Comet Thatcher, and it is named after the constellation Lyra the Harp.  A radiant point is that which illustrates the area of a shower's origin and in Lyrids' case  this is star Vega, located within the constellation Lyra the Harp.

Comet Thatcher is not a well-documented comet, as it takes the heavenly body 415 years to orbit the sun, so it only rarely makes it appearance.

To date, Comet Thatcher has never been photographed as its last appearance occurred in the mid-19th century, which at this point, obviously technology was not yet developed enough to be able to capture an image. Thatcher isn’t expected to make another appearance until 2276, so it will be several generations before anyone can capture an image of it (and by then the technology may be pretty incredible, if current signs are any sort of indicator and this trend continues - who knows maybe we'll even be able to fly out and see it in another location).

Lyrids Meteor Shower
Credit: Phillip Chee via Flickr/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Author description: "Taken on the morning of April 21, 2007." (a 30-minute exposure)

Additionally, the Lyrids are less predictable than showers that appear in other months during the year. Its April showing is typically brighter than average meteor showers and can withstand some moonlight. Most meteor showers have "peak" days which means the heavenly fireworks show is at its brightest. For Lyrids, the peak tends to fall around Between April 21-23, often coinciding with Earth Day, and the peak is short, lasting less than a day. However, the showers can be seen during the days before and after.

"This is not one of the top meteor showers of the year like the Perseids and the Geminids, still the Lyrids produce around 20 meteors an hour, and they are moderately fast - coming in at 110,000 miles per hour," Slooh astronomer Bob Berman said in a webcast advisory (courtesy 4). "That's about 30 miles per second, which is nearly 60 times faster than a rifle bullet."

How to See Lyrids

Stargazers looking to the skies in the Northern Hemisphere generally have the best view of Lyrids. Like most meteor showers, no special equipment is needed, the naked eye should be enough to be able to view the show. For positioning, it is best to lie down in a reclined position (or flat on your back) and look up into the dark skies. Experts suggest giving your eyes 30 to 45 minutes to acclimate for optimal viewing. Also, if you live in a city area or on a street that has a lot of lighting, you will want to find a darker, less-populated area in order to get the best views.

Lyrids Meteor Shower 2013
Credit: Mike Lewinski on Flickr/CC by 2.0 with Attribution

Lyrids showing in 2013. Author of image writes in description: "This was taken with my full spectrum camera. I aimed directly at the moon and set a custom white balance that worked out pretty nicely (minor adjustments to levels)."

The best time is usually to view Lyrids is usually after sunset. Additionally, experts often recommend setting your plans to view Lyrids during the dark hours before dawn due to the star Vega, which at that time will be shining high overhead.

Observers can expect to see about 10 to 20 meteors per hour during Lyrids' peak in general.  As noted, Lyrids is not quite as "active" as some of the other annual howers, such as the Geminids which appear in December. However, during some years, the peak illuminated by Lyrids can range upward towards approximately 100 meteors per hour, as was documented in 1982 in the United States, according to Earth Sky. Similar accounts were reported in Greece during the 1922 Lyrids showing and also in Japan during the year 1945.

In 2015, Lyrids is expected to peak on April 22. Due to a waxing crescent moon, experts indicate this year will create good viewing conditions, especially in Europe.

Update for 2016: Lyrids are anticipated to peak on April 22 and April 23. Experts say this year won't be a good one for viewing due to the full moon on April 21.

Full moon
Credit: Leigh Goessl

During the years when meteor showers align with a full moon make for difficult viewing.

The next meteors that appear after Lyrid departs are Eta Aquarids, and will arrive in early May. There are a number of showers that can be counted on each year.

Related articles:

Guide to the Orionids Meteor Shower  (October)

Leonids Meteor Shower (November)

NASA's Video Collage of the 2014 Lyrids showing. Its peak was on April 22, with the highest rate of meteors being approximately 20 per hour, just before the break of dawn.